Can kittiwakes smell? Experimental evidence in a larid species

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Birds have long been thought to have a poor sense of smell, although they have the proper anatomical and neurological structures for detecting olfactory cues (Roper 1999). However, in the past decade several bird species have been shown to use smell in various contexts, such as foraging (Nevitt et al. 1995), navigation (Wallraff 2004), selection of nest materials (Petit et al. 2002, Gwinner & Berger 2008), nest location (Bonadonna & Bretagnolle 2002), predator avoidance (Amo et al. 2008, Roth et al. 2008) and recognition of conspecifics (Hagelin et al. 2003) or mates (Bonadonna & Nevitt 2004, for reviews see Roper 1999, Hagelin & Jones 2007, Nevitt 2008).

The evidence, however, mainly concerns the Procellariiformes (petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses), a group that has long been suspected of using olfaction because of their strong body odour, highly developed olfactory bulb, nocturnal habits and burrow‐nesting (Nevitt & Bonadonna 2005, Nevitt 2008). Evidence of olfactory ability is scarce in other avian taxa. Exceptions include, for instance, Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura (Smith & Paselk 1986), Brown Kiwi Apteryx australis (Wenzel 1968), Homing Pigeon Columba livia (Wallraff 2004), Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus (Petit et al. 2002, Amo et al. 2008), Domestic Fowl Gallus domesticus (McKeegan et al. 2005), Kakapo Strigops habroptilus (Hagelin 2004), Yellow‐backed Chattering Lory Lorius garrulus flavopalliatus (Roper 2003), African Penguin Spheniscus demersus (Cunningham et al. 2008) and Crested Auklets Aethia cristatella (Hagelin et al. 2003).

The Laridae, including Black‐legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla, are diurnal, have relatively small olfactory bulbs (Bang & Cobb 1968) and do not appear to use olfaction to locate food (Frings et al. 1955, Lequette et al. 1989, Verheyden & Jouventin 1994). Kittiwakes use vocal cues in mate and parent/offspring recognition (Wooller 1978, Mulard & Danchin 2008), suggesting that olfaction may be at best secondary in those contexts. However, mates commonly allopreen, potentially exposing them to their mate’s chemical compounds. Moreover, the relative size of the olfactory bulb may be a poor predictor of olfactory abilities (Hagelin 2004, Mennerat et al. 2005). The aim of this experimental study was to assess whether Black‐legged Kittiwakes are able to detect odours added to the nest.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Can kittiwakes smell? Experimental evidence in a larid species
Series title Ibis
Volume 151
Issue 3
Year Published 2009
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description 4 p.
Larger Work Title Ibis
First page 584
Last page 587
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Middleton Island
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