ABSTRACT: The importance of olfaction in birds' social behavior has long been denied. Avian chemical signaling has thus been relatively unexplored. The black-legged kittiwake provides a particularly appropriate model for investigating this topic. Kittiwakes preferentially mate with genetically dissimilar individuals, but the cues used to assess genetic characteristics remain unknown. As in other vertebrates, their body odors may carry individual and sexual signatures thus potentially reliably signaling individual genetic makeup. Here, we test whether body odors in preen gland secretion and preen down feathers in kittiwakes may provide a sex and an individual signature. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, we found that male and female odors differ quantitatively, suggesting that scent may be one of the multiple cues used by birds to discriminate between sexes. We further detected an individual signature in the volatile and nonvolatile fractions of preen secretion and preen down feathers. These results suggest that kittiwake body odor may function as a signal associated with mate recognition. It further suggests that preen odor might broadcast the genetic makeup of individuals, and could be used in mate choice to assess the genetic compatibility of potential mates.
Naturwissenschaften 07/2011; 98(7):615-24. · 2.28 Impact Factor