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Female-Based Patterns and Social Function in Avian Chemical Communication

Abstract

Much of the growing interest in avian chemical signals has focused on the role of kin recognition or mate attraction, often with an emphasis on males, with uropygial gland secretions perhaps providing information about an individual’s identity and quality. Yet, data collected to date suggest sexual dimorphism in uropygial glands and secretions are often emphasized in female, rather than in male birds. That is, when a sexual difference occurs (often during the breeding season only), it is the female that typically exhibits one of three patterns: (1) a larger uropygial gland, (2) a greater abundance of volatile or semi-volatile preen oil compounds and/or (3) greater diversity of preen oil compounds or associated microbes. These patterns fit a majority of birds studied to date (23 of 30 chemically dimorphic species exhibit a female emphasis). Multiple species that do not fit are confounded by a lack of data for seasonal effects or proper quantitative measures of chemical compounds. We propose several social functions for these secretions in female-based patterns, similar to those reported in mammals, but which are largely unstudied in birds. These include: (1) intersexual advertisement of female receptivity or quality, including priming effects on male physiology, (2) intrasexual competition, including scent marking and reproductive suppression or (3) parental behaviors, such as parent-offspring recognition and chemical protection of eggs and nestlings. Revisiting the gaps of chemical studies to quantify the existence of female social chemosignals and any fitness benefit(s) during breeding are potentially fruitful but overlooked areas of future research.

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DJW was supported by NSF Cooperative Agreement DBI-0939454.

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Correspondence to Danielle J. Whittaker.

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Whittaker, D.J., Hagelin, J.C. Female-Based Patterns and Social Function in Avian Chemical Communication. J Chem Ecol 47, 43–62 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-020-01230-1

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Keywords

  • Birds
  • Dimorphism
  • Uropygial gland
  • Preen oil
  • Chemical signals
  • Kin recognition