Smell May Play Role in Bird Courtship, Study Finds

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To test the link, Hagelin joined forces with Jones, and biochemist Bets Rasmussen at the Oregon Graduate Institute in Beaverton. The team collected ruff feathers and carried out behavioral experiments during the breeding months of the Alaskan summer. Feathers collected during winter from captive auklets at the Long Beach Aquarium, California, suggested that the fragrance is only produced during the breeding season.

Chemical analysis of summer feathers revealed fragrance substances, which could be synthesized. The team set up airtight maze experiments on the island breeding colony. A total of 174 temporarily captive wild auklets had a choice of paths that led them to either naturally fragranced auklet plumage, or the unscented plumage of a related species, the parakeet auklet. Other experiments tested their response to synthesized tangerine-like odor chemicals, banana fragrance, and mammalian musk.

The results showed that crested auklets spent up 65 percent of their time in the maze stretches containing scented feathers. They responded even more strongly to more concentrated synthetic auklet odor. The birds were found to avoid musk, and showed no response to banana fragrance, indicating that they could distinguish between fragrances. "Recognizing and distinguishing fragrances is an important [requirement] for chemical communication," said Hagelin.

The fragrance might act as a "sexual ornament," said Hagelin. Crested auklets already display other traits such as bright beaks, which are used, like the peacocks' tail, to attract mates or advertise status. The strength of a bird's smell might signal its quality to a mate, though this requires further investigation, said Hagelin.

Instant Messenger

It's too early to establish how important social odors are in other species, but the potential for scent signals certainly exists. Many birds produce odors detectable to people, and mutually preen plumage, which could transmit information.

A related species, the whiskered auklet, has a similar tangerine-like plumage odor, and other sea birds such as shearwaters and storm petrels have distinct musky odors. The kakapo, an endangered, flightless parrot from New Zealand, has a sweet musky scent detectable meters away.

"This is a great study," said Bart Kempenaers, ornithologist at the Max Planck Research Centre for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. "There have been few studies on the importance of smell in birds." The next step is to establish if the fragrance has any role in how crested auklets choose their mates, he said.

For many years researchers ignored the importance of smell in birds, said Kempenaers, but new studies are slowly challenging that view. "I guess it all boils down to our prejudices," biased by how we ourselves view the world, he said.

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