Sunglasses for Birds…And Science

Imagine having to design a tiny pair of sunglasses for a bird no bigger than a quart of milk. That is just what an ornithologist at the University of Nottingham has done. In the name of science, he has come up with a unique way to protect the eyes of puffins while he studies their beaks.

Designing special sunglasses for scientific studies is nothing new, according to Olympic Eyewear. Science is replete with examples of specially designed sunglasses for everything from laser research to observing solar eclipses. Popular Science even reports that researchers once made a tiny pair of sunglasses for praying mantises in order to study whether the insects can see in three dimensions.

It just goes to show that sunglasses are not just for people. Sometimes they are designed for animals in pursuit of a scientific goal. Other times we put sunglasses on animals – mostly our pets – just because they look cool.

Puffins with Sunglasses

Ornithologist Jamie Dunning is now in the midst of the project aiming to understand why male puffins show florescent beaks when those beaks are exposed to UV light. Dunning noticed that puffins are similar to crested auklets in this regard, but he didn’t know why. So he devised an experiment by which he could expose the beaks of living puffins under UV light to see what happened.

Note that most of the birds Dunning studies are deceased animals kept in freezers until needed. He realized he could not get the same kinds of results with a dead bird, so he set about studying live puffins. Enter the need for sunglasses. Exposing the birds to direct UV light without eye protection could be just as damaging to them as it is to humans. So Dunning first created a special pair of puffin sunglasses.

The sunglasses look like the temporary sunglasses you might get from your optometrist after an eye exam. The main difference is that the bridge is shaped to fit over a bird’s beak rather than a human nose. The lens material is a thin flexible plastic that is yellow in color.

Dunning points out that birds have four cones in their eyes whereas we human beings have but three. This extra cone allows them to see UV light as color. But it also makes their eyes a bit more vulnerable to heavy concentrations of UV light. Thus, the yellow sunglasses.

Puffins Looking Good

If you are curious about Dunning’s research, you will probably be interested to know what he discovered. Right off the bat, he found out that puffin beaks do have extra streaks of color that human eyes cannot see. Remember, our eyes do not see UV light. Because puffin eyes do, the extra UV streaks are something they see all the time.

Based on his observation, Dunning believes the most logical explanation for the UV streaks has to do with attracting a mate. Where some other birds are drawn to colorful plumage during the selection of a mate, Dunning believes puffins pay attention to the colors in male beaks. The more colorful the UV streaks, the better chances a male will land a mate.

Thanks to some professional curiosity and a pair of specially designed sunglasses, Dunning now knows a little bit more about puffins. His scientific work by no means represents the first time tiny sunglasses were made for animals in the name of science – and it won’t be the last either. Perhaps he could take his design to a manufacturer willing to create a larger version for humans. With so many choices in fashion sunglasses, it would probably sell.

Monique Hall

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