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Smell helps seabirds find their home in the dark

A bird’s sense of smell (olfaction) plays a vital role in avian ecology, especially in petrels, which are known to return to the same nest with the same partner in the same colony each year.
Smell helps seabirds find their home in the dark
Blue petrels nest in burrows in the ground, to which they return at night after foraging trips. The olfactory clues that lead birds towards the burrow’s entrance may have a range of sources, including lipids from the owner’s feathers and uropygial gland secretions. However, the chemical composition of nest odour and components that facilitate recognition, even after a year, are not yet fully understood.

Thus, the EU-funded BIRDSCENTS (Role and function of olfaction in seabirds) project investigated how blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea), which live in the Southern Ocean and breed on small islands around the Arctic, use their sense of smell to identify nest odour and the odour of other individual blue petrels.

The goal was to identify and characterise volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emanating from the birds’ plumages and nests. Samples of nest material and VOCs were therefore collected from breeding birds during field work in the Kerguelen Islands, in the southern Indian Ocean. Initially, samples were analysed using solid-phase microextraction fibres and direct thermal desorption.

Scientists also explored a novel strategy of sampling nests derived VOCs directly on site by collecting VOCs onto a sequence of two thermo-desorption tubes, the first packed with Tennax-TA and the second with Sulficarb. In addition, different laboratory methods were investigated for extracting VOCs from feathers for analysis on gas chromatography mass spectrometry.

Regardless of the method used, results indicated that VOCs from nests may change each year and also differ with species and with occupancy of the nest. They also showed a nest ‘label’ that may be related to homecoming behaviour. VOCs from feathers revealed an individual label that may play a role in social communication and in the homing recognition for blue petrels.

BIRDSCENTS findings will support future work into the chemical communication system and chemical ecology of birds and vertebrates. They can also be used to help identify the role of olfaction in birds and its implications for conservation in the face of global change.

Related information


Seabirds, olfaction, blue petrels, nest odour, BIRDSCENTS, volatile organic compounds
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