New Brunswick

UNB biologist says he, too, discovered UV glow of puffin's beak — 8 years ago

After research suggesting the bills of Atlantic puffins glow under ultraviolet light made international headlines this weekend, one New Brunswick biologist says his team made the same discovery eight years ago — he just never published it.

Tony Diamond says he should have published discovery after he stumbled across it with fellow scientists

Tony Diamond says it was coincidence the work of Jamie Dunning, the English ornithologist whose work on the birds is now taking flight, landed on his desk for editing. (Submitted by Tony Diamond)

After findings suggesting the bills of Atlantic puffins glow under ultraviolet light made international headlines over the weekend, one New Brunswick biologist says his team made the same discovery eight years ago — he just never published it.

"All credit to them for stumbling upon it, as we did, and publishing it," said Tony Diamond, a research professor at the University of New Brunswick. "We should have done that too."

In late March, an English ornithologist tweeted about his discovery that beaks of Atlantic puffins, like the ones found on Grand Manan, glow.

When he sent his report on the discovery off for a peer review, it ended up on Diamond's desk.

That's when the local bird expert realized his mistake eight years ago.

"There's no doubt I screwed up and I should have published it," Diamond said. "At the time, I thought it was an incidental observation and it would be difficult to craft a paper around this."

In 2010 and 2011, the UNB biologist said, he and some colleagues were investigating the red colours of the puffin's beak with a graduate student's research. 

They were looking at how the red of the bill related to the health of the bird or its breeding.

Diamond can't remember why the scientists shined a black light on a dead puffin.

"None of us can remember why we did that," he said Monday. 

Not related to research

When the beak glowed in the ultraviolet light, Diamond said, he considered it an interesting sidebar.

But because the red part of the puffin's beak doesn't have the necessary structures to reflect ultraviolet light, he left the discovery where it was.

Diamond said it was coincidence that the work of Jamie Dunning, the English scientist whose work on the birds is now taking flight, landed on his desk for editing.

He theorizes someone in the field overheard him discussing his discovery at a dinner party years ago, and it was spread through word of mouth that he had done similar research.

Awkward position

"This is the first time that's happened to me in a 50-year career — that as a reviewer [I'm] asked by a journal, a scientific journal, to give peer review to a paper that actually is claiming something new that I've already found."

He said he didn't know what the best practices were when dealing with that specific situation.

"What an unethical reviewer would do is recommend to the editor that [the research] not be published because it's not actually new and try to get the paper suppressed while you put together your own."

Instead of doing that, Diamond said he threw himself to the mercy of the editor and asked for help.

Birds are tetrachromatic, meaning their eyes have the ability to perceive more of the light spectrum than humans do. (Submitted by Tony Diamond)

He was advised he could add his research to Dunning's, which would strengthen the evidence behind both findings and help their chances of being published. The graduate student from 2010 will be one of many co-authors on the paper.

Diamond said IBIS, the academic journal that he and Dunning plan on submitting to, needs more than one data point to accept their findings.

"I have a lot of specimens in our freezer here that I can shine a light on," he said. "I can make it 10 data points quite easily."

Uncertain of glowing beak's purpose

Questions still remain about why the North Atlantic animal would have these structures in their beaks, especially since it's unknown how it would be useful or if the light can even be perceived by puffins.

"It doesn't need to for this to be important," Diamond said. 

Heather Major, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UNB, was one of the first people to study beaks under UV light. She and a coworker shined a dive light on a crested auklet near Alaska. (Submitted by Heather Major. Taken by Ethan Slattery)

"You wouldn't expect an organism to build a specialized structure without there being a function to what the structure does. An important function. We don't know what that function is."

Birds are tetrachromatic, meaning their eyes have the ability to perceive more of the light spectrum than humans do.

But Diamond said being tetrachromatic doesn't necessarily equate to seeing ultraviolet light, which is unusual for seabirds.

He said the glow-stick-like bills probably have something to do with signalling between individuals of the species, perhaps for mating.

But the research still hasn't been published, and it hasn't been conducted on a living specimen.

Heather Major, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UNB, will continue the investigation into what the fluorescence in the beak is used for.

She was one of the first people to write about glowing beaks when she and a co-worker shined a dive light on a crested auklet.

"We noticed its bill, which is bright orange, kind of fluoresced under that UV light and thought, 'Wow, that was unexpected,'" she said.

She said she has heard rumours about the fluorescent nature of puffin beaks since she was a graduate student — like an urban legend spread among bird biologists.  

"I think it's one of those things that a lot of us who have worked with this species have thought about and thought it was probably likely," she said. "But it was just no one really did it before."    

About the Author

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca