Atypical homing or self-odour avoidance? Blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea) are attracted to their mate’s odour but avoid their own
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Among procellariiform seabirds, many burrowing petrels show good olfactory abilities especially in recognising their nest. In particular, it has been reported that Antarctic prions (Pachyptila desolata) discriminate their own and their mate’s odours and, in Y-maze experiments, prefer the odour of a conspecific bird to their own. While traditionally examined from the perspective of homing mechanisms, these recent results have drawn attention to the possible use of chemical signals in birds’ social behaviours. Indeed, the life history of petrels suggests that a mate choice mediated by olfactory mechanisms may have evolved in this group to ensure genetic compatibility. This study was undertaken to validate and extend results obtained on petrels’ olfactory discrimination capabilities. Following the Y-maze experiment protocol, blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea) were offered three different choices: (1) mate versus conspecific’s odour, (2) own versus mate’s odour and (3) own versus conspecific’s odour. We discovered that birds prefer the odour of their mate not only when presented against conspecific’s odour but also against their own. We further verified that blue petrels also avoid their own odour when presented against conspecific’s odour. Our results confirm that olfactory discrimination in burrowing petrels goes beyond self-recognition and that self-odour avoidance may be widespread. We use two mutually non-exclusive behavioural frameworks for the interpretation of our results, homing and mate choice, and explain why homing mechanisms cannot account for all of our observations. This study opens the door to further research on olfactory mechanisms that, in petrels, might mediate individual recognition and mate choice.