, 95:45 | Cite as

Prenuptial perfume: Alloanointing in the social rituals of the crested auklet (Aethia cristatella) and the transfer of arthropod deterrents

  • Hector D. DouglasIII
Original Paper


Alloanointing, the transfer of chemicals between conspecifics, is known among mammals, but hitherto, the behavior has not been documented for birds. The crested auklet (Aethia cristatella), a colonial seabird of Alaskan and Siberian waters, alloanoints during courtship with fragrant aldehydes that are released from specialized wick-like feathers located in the interscapular region. Crested auklets solicit anointment at the colony, and prospective mates rub bill, breast, head, and neck over wick feathers of their partners. This distributes aldehydes over the head, neck, and face where the birds cannot self-preen. The resulting chemical concentrations are sufficient to deter ectoparasites. Auklets that emit more odorant can transfer more defensive chemicals to mates and are thus more sexually attractive. Behavioral studies showed that crested auklets are attracted to their scent. Wild birds searched for dispensers that emitted their scent and rubbed their bills on the dispensers and engaged in vigorous anointment behaviors. In captive experiments, naïve crested auklets responded more strongly to synthetic auklet scent than controls, and the greatest behavioral response occurred during early courtship. This study extends scientific knowledge regarding functions of alloanointing. Alloanointing had previously been attributed to scent marking and individual recognition in vertebrates. Alloanointing is described here in the context of an adaptive social cue — the transfer of arthropod deterrents between prospective mates.


Alloanointing Crested auklet Courtship Aldehydes Chemical defense Ectoparasites Fatty acid methyl esters 



D. Oehler and the Aviculture Department (C. Edelen, S. Malowski, M. Miller, K. Rehn, A. Winkel) at Cincinnati Zoo provided assistance with experiments and logistics. Daniels Taxidermy Studios, Cold Spring, KY, prepared taxidermic mounts used in this research. G. and J. Menon advised me on literature and methods regarding the avian integument. The Eppley Foundation for Research, Angus Gavin Migratory Bird Research Fund. and David Burnett Dunn Memorial Award, University of Alaska Foundation, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology helped with funding. Laboratory facilities were provided by Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Univ. Alaska Fairbanks, and the Gambell School of Bering Strait School District. Sivuqaq Native Corp. and Native Village of Diomede granted permission to conduct research. T. Jones, W. Conner, A. Springer, G. Sheffield, T. Clausen, and W. Krause helped further this work. The comments of E. Murphy and three anonymous reviewers helped improve this manuscript. This research complied with all applicable US laws and ethical guidelines pertaining to treatment of animals in behavioral research.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Marine ScienceUniversity of Alaska FairbanksFairbanksUSA
  2. 2.Biology Department, Kuskokwim CampusUniversity of Alaska FairbanksBethelUSA

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