Sandpipers (Scolopacidae) switch from monoester to diester preen waxes during courtship and incubation, but why?

Jeroen Reneerkens, Theunis Piersma, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté

Abstract

Recently, a shift in preen wax composition, from lower molecular weight monoesters to higher molecular weight diesters, was described for individuals of a sandpiper species (red knot, Calidris canutus) that were about to leave for the tundra breeding grounds. The timing of the shift indicated that diester waxes served as a quality signal during mate choice. Here, this hypothesis is evaluated on the basis of a survey of preen wax composition in 19 sandpiper species. All of these species showed the same shift observed in the high–Arctic breeding red knots. As the shift also occurred in temperate breeding species, it is not specific to tundra–breeding sandpipers. Both sexes produced the diester waxes during the incubation period until hatching, in addition to the short period of courtship, indicating that diesters' functions extend beyond that of a sexually selected ‘make–up’. The few non–incubating birds examined (males of curlew sandpipers (C. ferruginea) and ruffs (Philomachus pugnax)) had the lowest likelihood of secreting diesters, indicating a functional role for diester preen waxes during incubation. We propose that diester preen waxes enhance olfactory crypticism at the nest.

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