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Could smell play a role in the origin of new bird species?
Date:3/23/2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Two recently diverged populations of a southern California songbird produce unique odors, suggesting smell could contribute to the reproductive isolation that accompanies the origin of new bird species. The Indiana University Bloomington study of organic compounds present in the preen oils of Dark-eyed Juncos is described in this month's Behavioral Ecology.

"There's so much we don't know about the role of smell in bird behavior," said biologist Danielle Whittaker, the study's lead author. "Differences in smell could be affecting sexual behavior, parental care and even contribute to speciation."

Whittaker is a postdoctoral researcher in IU Bloomington biologist Ellen Ketterson's research group.

Led by Whittaker, a team of IU Bloomington biologists and chemists examined the chemical composition of preen oil, which is a compound birds secrete and spread around their bodies to straighten, protect and waterproof their feathers. To analyze the odor chemistry of preen oil, the scientists isolated 19 volatile molecules that can achieve a gaseous, more sniff-friendly state. The chemical isolation and analysis portion of the interdisciplinary project was led by IU Bloomington Department of Chemistry Distinguished Professor Milos Novotny and Senior Scientist Helena Soini.

The scientists found that each junco possesses a unique and recognizable odor profile that was stable over a two-week period and that could be used to distinguish it from other individuals. The odor profiles of male birds differed from those of female birds, and birds' odor profiles differed depending on which population they were from.

"This is the most comprehensive study of its kind," Whittaker said. "And as far as we know, it is the first time anyone has looked closely at these chemical compounds at the population level in any bird."

Last year, Whittaker, Ketterson, and others reported in the Journal of Avian Bio
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Contact: David Bricker
brickerd@indiana.edu
812-856-9035
Indiana University
Source:Eurekalert  

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