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Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at fieldnotes@seattletimes.com with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

July 19, 2011 at 1:30 PM

Sniffing out the other sex: People do it, as do mice and lizards, but seabirds?

Posted by Craig Welch

Looking for love? Wiggle your nose.

OK. Perhaps that is a gross generalization. Few of us (consciously, at least) choose our mates based on how they smell. But that's not to say that odors aren't important. Scientists have found that women might actually prefer the body odor of men who are, ahem, "genetically dissimilar," said Sarah Leclaire, a biologist with the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. In other words, we're more attracted to people who don't smell like our relatives.

That makes sense, of course, since few species benefit from inbreeding. And when it comes to following olfactory cues, we're certainly not alone. Among some species of voles and mice, females prefer hanging out with males that smell genetically different. Same with sand lizards. In fact, links between odor and sex have been found in everything from hyenas and pandas to tortoises and boa constrictors.

But what about birds? That's what Leclaire wanted to find out.

Since birds don't exactly go around sniffing one another, the role that odor plays in mating has always been something of a mystery. For the most part it was assumed that scent wasn't all that important. Leclaire found something else entirely by tracking a handful of Pacific Northwest seabirds.

Leclaire recently spent a lot of time on a tiny island in the Gulf of Alaska where "there is nothing except many bird species, a population of rabbits, a small station of the Federal Aviation Administration (with two guys taking care of a radar and other weather recording equipments) and an abandoned tower," she wrote in an email exchange this week. She was there to see the black-legged kittiwakes.

big bird.JPG
It turns out that black-legged kittiwakes release distinct individual odors.
Photos By Sarah Leclaire

The medium-sized gulls are found throughout the northern Pacific and can often be seen near the mouth of the Columbia River and not far from jetties near Westport in Grays Harbor County. Leclaire knew that the gulls didn't appear to choose mates based on vocal cues. So she wanted to see if kittiwakes applied a sniff test.

open mouth.JPG

First she had to show that kittiwakes could even smell, which she did in a study published in 2009. But also took samples of the birds' preen oils and had them chemically analyzed. She figured out that males and females indeed smelled differently and that each bird actually had a distinct odor. That in turn suggested that preening may broadcast a bird's specific scent to other birds -- perhaps as a way to help each choose a mate. Her results were published recently in the journal Naturwissenschaften -- The Science of Nature.

birds flirting.JPG


bird tube.JPG Other discussions of her work can be found here and here.

The next step, of course, is for Leclaire or others on her team to study gull behavior to see if the birds do, in fact, follow their noses, so to speak. It's also not clear whether this behavior would be specific to kittiwakes or extend to other bird species. But it's likely the answers to such questions are coming soon.

"Researchers ... think that all bird species can smell and can use olfaction in different contexts (for instance, in choosing their mate, finding their nest, recognizing their offspring, finding their food, etc...)," Leclaire wrote in an email. "But although the study of avian olfaction is booming, only few studies have investigated this topic so far."

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