Animals frequently use metabolites produced by symbiotic bacteria as agents against pathogens and parasites. Secretions from the preen gland of birds are used for this purpose, although its chemicals apparently are produced by the birds themselves. European hoopoes Upupa epops and green woodhoopoes Phoeniculus purpureus harbour symbiotic bacteria in the uropygial gland that might be partly responsible for the chemical composition of secretions. Here we investigate the antimicrobial activity of the volatile fraction of chemicals in hoopoe preen secretions, and, by means of experimental antibiotic injections, test whether symbiotic bacteria living within the uropygial gland are responsible for their production. Hoopoes produce two different kinds of secretions that differ drastically in their chemical composition. While the malodorous dark secretions produced by nestlings included a complex mix of volatiles, these chemicals did not appear in white secretions produced by non-nesting birds. All volatiles detected showed strong antibacterial activity, and a mixture of the chemicals at the concentrations measured in nestling glands inhibited the growth of all bacterial strains assayed. We found support for the hypothesized role of bacteria in the production of such antimicrobial chemicals because experimental clearance of bacteria from glands of nestlings with antibiotics resulted in secretions without most of the volatiles detected in control individuals. Thus, the presence of symbiotic bacteria in the uropygial gland provides hoopoes with potent antimicrobials for topical use.


    • Received June 7, 2009.
    • Accepted September 16, 2009.
View Full Text