Differences in olfactory species recognition in the females of two Australian songbird species
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Although birds have recently been shown to possess olfactory abilities and to use chemical cues in communication, limited effort has been made to demonstrate the use of odorants in social contexts. Even less is known regarding the use of odorants in species recognition. The ability to recognize conspecifics should be more pronounced in social species. This study investigated the importance of olfactory cues in species recognition in females of two estrildid finch species with different levels of sociality. Combining odor preference tests with chemical analyses, we surveyed whether female zebra finches and diamond firetails are able to distinguish between the species based on volatile traits and whether individuals exhibit species-specific differences in body odorants. Zebra finches are more social than diamond firetails; nevertheless, both species have an overlapping distribution area. Applying an experimental Y-maze paradigm, we showed that zebra finches can use differences in their species odor fingerprints and displayed a significant preference for the odor of conspecifics over that of heterospecifics, whereas diamond firetails did not reveal a preference. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, we demonstrated that body odorants of the two species were significantly different in relative composition. This finding demonstrates the potential importance of olfactory cues in species recognition, at least in social bird species. Even these two closely related species displayed remarkable differences in their responsiveness to similar chemical cues, which might be caused by species-specific differences in ecology, physiology, or evolution.
KeywordsSongbird Zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata Diamond firetail Stagonopleura guttata Sociality Olfaction Smell Scent Olfactory fingerprint
ETK was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (85994). We thank Elke Hippauf for help with the sex determination of the diamond firetails and Ulla Kodytek, Gitta Otte, Michael Meierhoff, and Kristina Ruhe for taking care of the animals. We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments.
After the experiments, all the birds remained in our lab stocks. The experiments were performed in accordance with the current laws of the country. Housing of birds was conducted with the permission of the Gesundheits-, Veterinär- und Lebensmittelüberwachungsamt, Stadt Bielefeld, Germany (no. 530.421630-1, 18/04/2002).
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