Storm petrel seabirds use smell to prevent inbreed

Seabirds are able to identify their relatives from smell alone, scientists have claimed.

Updated: Jul 19, 2012, 13:41 PM IST

London: Seabirds are able to identify their relatives from smell alone, scientists have claimed.

In a “recognition test”, European storm petrels chose to avoid the scent of a relative in favour of approaching the smell of an unrelated bird.

The researchers think this behaviour prevents the birds from “accidentally inbreeding.”

The study is the first evidence that birds are able to sniff out a suitable mate.

Lead researcher Francesco Bonadonna, from the Centre of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France, told a website that the birds used smell to recognise and communicate their “genetic compatibility”.

Sniffing out a genetically suitable mate is a well-known phenomenon in mammals. But until recently, scientists thought that birds relied on vision and sound when choosing a partner.

According to Dr Bonadonna, the fact that they use odours explains how these birds manage to return to their family colony to breed and avoid mating with a relative.

European storm petrels remain in the colony they are born in throughout their life, so this site is also home to several of their family members.

“These birds are [also] theoretically faithful to one mate for life,” the researcher said.

“So a bad choice may have catastrophic consequences.”

He said that smell or “chemical communication” was “the most ancient and simplest form of communication” in the animal kingdom, adding, “it makes sense that the birds would use it.”

Storm Petrels are small nocturnal seabirds that breed in dark burrows or crevices.

One of the most striking features of these birds is that they smell - a warm, musky smell.

It is known that they find their food out on the ocean by means of a sophisticated olfactory ability (or sense of smell), so it isn’t too surprising that they use this sense of smell in their social lives.

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.