Can gulls smell out a good partner?

Jul 06, 2011

Male and female kittiwakes smell different from each other, according to research by Sarah Leclaire from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique at the Université Paul Sabatier in France and her team. Their work also suggests that the birds' body odors might signal the genetic makeup of individual birds, and could be used in mate choice to assess the genetic compatibility of potential partners. The study is published in the July issue of Springer's journal Naturwissenschaften.

Birds protect their feathers by preening them with the of the preen gland. These secretions also carry odors. Scents in preen secretions tend to vary widely depending on the species, season and/or sex of the bird.

Leclaire and colleagues investigated the body odor in preen gland secretions and preen down feathers in a population of black-legged kittiwakes nesting in the Gulf of Alaska. Kittiwakes are a seabird species in the gull family. They collected samples of preen oil and preen down feathers from 21 females and 20 males, to test whether the birds' body odor carried individual and/or sexual signatures likely to reliably signal individual genetic makeup. These seabirds choose to mate with genetically dissimilar partners, but the cues used to assess genetic characteristics are unknown.

They found a total of 68 odor compounds, across both oil and feather samples. They also identified a difference in the amount of odor compounds between males and females, suggesting that scent may be one of the multiple cues used by to discriminate between sexes. The authors also detected an individual signature in preen secretions and preen down feathers; in other words they found evidence of individual-specific secretions.

Leclaire and colleagues conclude: "Our study suggests the existence of two odor signatures in kittiwakes: a sex and an individual signature. These results point to body odor as a signal associated with individual recognition and mate choice. Kittiwakes may be using body to assess the genetic compatibility of potential mates."

Explore further: Research helps steer mites from bees

More information: Leclaire S et al (2011). An individual and a sex odor signature in kittiwakes? Study of the semiochemical composition of preen secretion and preen down feathers. Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature DOI:10.1007/s00114-011-0809-9

Related Stories

When mice choose mates, experience counts

Mar 21, 2006

Choosing a mate is a big decision. And, at least for mice, it's one that is best made with input from one's peers. In a series of experiments designed help scientists understand the brain chemicals that guide ...

Female mammals follow their noses to the right mates

Mar 17, 2009

Female birds often choose their mates based on fancy feathers. Female mammals, on the other hand, may be more likely to follow their noses to the right mate. That's one conclusion of Cambridge zoologist Tim Clutton-Brock ...

Birds with a nose for a difference

Jun 30, 2009

Avoidance of inbreeding is evident amongst humans, and has been demonstrated in some shorebirds, mice and sand lizards. Researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology now report that it also occurs ...

Recommended for you

Research helps steer mites from bees

Sep 19, 2014

A Simon Fraser University chemistry professor has found a way to sway mites from their damaging effects on bees that care and feed the all-important queen bee.

Bird brains more precise than humans'

Sep 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —Birds have been found to display superior judgement of their body width compared to humans, in research to help design autonomous aircraft navigation systems.

User comments : 0