Can gulls smell out a good partner?

July 6, 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: When mice choose mates, experience counts

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

March 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 mate selection, ...

Female mammals follow their noses to the right mates

March 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

June 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 ...

Could smell play a role in the origin of new bird species?

March 23, 2010

Two recently diverged populations of a southern California songbird produce unique odors, suggesting smell could contribute to the reproductive isolation that accompanies the origin of new bird species. The Indiana University ...

Recommended for you

'Hog-nosed rat' discovered in Indonesia

October 6, 2015

Researchers working in Indonesia have discovered a new species of mammal called the hog-nosed rat, aptly named after its features, that scientists said they had never been seen before.

Ancestors of land plants were wired to make the leap to shore

October 5, 2015

When the algal ancestor of modern land plants first succeeded in making the transition from aquatic environments to an inhospitable shore 450 million years ago, it changed the world by dramatically altering climate and setting ...

Stress in adolescence prepares rats for future challenges

October 5, 2015

Rats exposed to frequent physical, social, and predatory stress during adolescence solved problems and foraged more efficiently under high-threat conditions in adulthood compared with rats that developed without stress, according ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.