Monday, March 9, 2015

Vole Pee: An Epiphany (A Guest Post)

By Nate Kueffer

You’re driving down the road, looking out the window, and you see a large raptor hovering above a field. Have you ever wondered what exactly the raptor could see that you couldn’t? Well, it is thought that raptors may be able to sense ultraviolet light and use it to track voles through urine and feces trails.

A hovering kestrel, possibly tracking a vole. Photo by Mark Likner at Flickr.

Ultraviolet light is a non-detectable form of radiation by the human eye and is similar to X-rays and gamma rays. However, with the help of a black light human eyes can see different materials that we couldn’t see in visible light. The objects that humans can typically see under a black light are fluorescent. This means that the object has the ability to soak up ultraviolet light and then emit the light it took in and produce a light frequency that humans are able to detect.

Jussi Viitala from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, and Erkki Korpimäki, Päivi Palokangas (now Lundvall) and Minna Koivula from the University of Turku in Finland set out to find more conclusive evidence on raptors using ultraviolet light to hunt. The four researchers tested the hypothesis that in order to find prey patches, Eurasian kestrels, a species of raptor, look for vole scent marks visible in ultraviolet light. The voles’ scent marks are their urine and feces droppings, which show up under ultraviolet light. The researchers set up experiments in the field and in a laboratory setting.

Kestrel with a captured vole after a successful hunt. Photo by Eugene Beckes at Flickr.

In the laboratory setting, wild captured kestrels were released into a large area made up of four different arenas. All arenas were different, but did not allow any external visual cues. One arena had vole trails in ultraviolet light, another was clean with ultraviolet light, a third arena had visible light and vole trails, and the final arena was clean with visible light. The kestrels were then measured by their time spent over each arena. The kestrels in the laboratory seemed to prefer the arena with ultraviolet light and vole trails. The clean, ultraviolet-lit arena had the least amount of scans and time spent over that arena compared to the other three arenas. The kestrels had no preference over either arena with visible light.

The field setting had 3 experimental groups for 45 kestrel nest boxes: the first had artificial vole trails with urine and feces, the second had artificial vole trails, but no urine or feces, and the last was the control with no vole trails, urine, or feces. The 45 boxes were observed over 24 mornings when the researchers recorded the number of kestrels near each nest and their behavior (hunting, paired, or resting). For the field experiment, 27 of the 45 nest boxes attracted kestrels near them. The most commonly used nest boxes were near artificial trails with urine and feces. The kestrels avoided the other two nest box areas: the one with trails, but no urine, and one with no trails and no urine. This showed that the trails weren’t used as hunting cues. Paired or hunting kestrels preferred to spend time hunting near trails with urine or feces, and resting kestrels were seen evenly in all three areas. Also, four rough-legged hawks were seen hunting near the trails with urine and feces.

Both experiments showed kestrels using trails with markings from voles suggesting that the vole markings may be used to select hunting and nest sites. The researchers propose that the kestrels, in fact, use vole scent markings as visual cues. Kestrels and other predatory birds may use the ultraviolet light from vole markings to scan over large areas new to them before deciding to hunt or nest in the area. The next raptor you see out of your car window could be tracking its prey’s markings using ultraviolet light.

Olson, V. (n.d.). Raptor Vision. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from

Q & A: Why does a black light make objects glow? (2007, October 22). Retrieved January 21, 2015, from

Viitala, J., Korplmäki, E., Palokangas, P., & Koivula, M. (1995). Attraction of kestrels to vole scent marks visible in ultraviolet light Nature, 373 (6513), 425-427 DOI: 10.1038/373425a0

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