In jawed vertebrates, genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) play a key role in immunity by encoding cell-surface proteins that recognize and bind non-self antigens. High variability at MHC suggests that these loci may also function in social signalling such as mate choice and kin recognition. This requires that MHC genotype covaries with some perceptible phenotypic trait. In mammals and fish, MHC is signalled chemically through volatile and non-volatile peptide odour cues, facilitating MHC-dependent mate choice and other behaviours. In birds, despite evidence for MHC-dependent mating, candidate mechanisms for MHC signalling remain largely unexplored. However, feather preen wax has recently been implicated as a potential source of odour cues. We examined whether the chemical composition of preen wax correlates with MHC class IIβ genotypes of wild song sparrows (Melospiza melodia). Pairwise chemical distance reflected amino acid distance at MHC for male–female dyads, although not for same-sex dyads. Chemical diversity did not reflect MHC diversity. We used gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to characterize preen wax compounds, and identified four wax esters that best reflect MHC similarity. Provided songbirds can detect variation in preen wax composition, this cue may allow individuals to assess MHC compatibility of potential mates.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3517455.
- Received September 5, 2016.
- Accepted October 7, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.