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29-Oct-2004

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Eau de prion? Seabirds can smell their mates, scientists say



An Antarctic prion, Pachiptila desolata. Image courtesy of Francesco Bonadonna.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Seabirds called prions, which mate for life, can recognize their partners by smell, scientists have discovered.

Many mammals are known to have super-sensitive sniffers that allow them to identify each other by smell, but researchers haven't known much about whether birds can do this.



An Antarctic prion, Pachiptila desolata. Image courtesy of Francesco Bonadonna.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

One good reason to study odor detection in prions and other "tube-nosed" seabirds is that the birds are pretty smelly to begin with. When researchers have used cotton bags to transport the birds, they've noticed a musky scent clinging to the bags afterwards.

These seabirds also have an excellent sense of smell.



An Antarctic prion, Pachiptila desolata. Image courtesy of Francesco Bonadonna.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Species like the Antarctic prion breed in colonies and make their nests in burrows.

During breeding season, prion mates take turns sitting on the eggs in the nest and heading out to sea to look for food. The birds can be gone for up to two weeks.

Francesco Bonadonna of the CNRS Center for Evolutionary and Functional Ecology in Montpellier, France and Gabrielle Nevitt of the University of California, Davis in Davis, Calif. wondered if prions might use smell to find their nests when they got back, since the nests would smell like their mates.



An Antarctic prion, Pachiptila desolata. Image courtesy of Francesco Bonadonna.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

The researchers studied individual Antarctic prions, using a maze in which a single passageway split into three symmetrical arms. Each arm smelled like a different bird because it contained one of those smelly cotton bags. One of the three bird smells came from the mate of the bird being tested.

When the authors placed a bird in the passageway, it would pause at the intersection and wag its head back and forth, probably smelling the different odors wafting down each corridor.

Then it would usually walk down the corridor that smelled like its mate.

These results revealed that the birds could pick out the specific smells of their partners and that they preferred their mates' smells over other birds' smells.

The study appears in the 29 October 2004 issue of the journal Science. Bonadonna and Nevitt think it's the first study to show that some birds can identify each other's individual scent. More research will be needed to show which other types of birds have this ability.

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