Royal Society Publishing

A tangerine-scented social odour in a monogamous seabird

Julie C. Hagelin , Ian L. Jones , L. E. L. Rasmussen


Social odours, conspecific chemical signals, have been demonstrated in every class of vertebrate except birds. The apparent absence is surprising, as every bird examined has a functional olfactory system and many produce odours. The crested auklet (Aethia cristatella), a monogamous seabird, exhibits a distinctive tangerine–like scent closely associated with courtship. Using T–maze experiments, we tested whether auklets preferred conspecific odours and whether they distinguished between different types of scent, two prerequisites of chemical communication. Crested auklets exhibited: (i) an attraction to conspecific feather odour; (ii) a preference for two chemical components of feather scent (cis–4–decenal and octanal), which we identified as seasonally elevated; and (iii) differential responses to odours, as indicated by a preference for auklet odour, an aversion to mammalian musk, but no significant response to banana essence (amyl acetate). Our results suggest that crested auklets detect plumage odour and preferentially orientate towards this stimulus. The striking and well–described courtship display that involves the scented neck region, the ‘ruff sniff’, provides a conspicuous behavioural mechanism for odour transmission and the potential for scent assessment during sexual selection. Although the importance and full social function of chemical signals are just beginning to be understood in birds, including crested auklets, social odours promise to reveal a largely unexplored and possibly widespread means of avian communication.

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