“It’s important for birds that live in large groups in the wild, like penguins, to know who their neighbors are so that they can find their nesting areas and also, through experience, know how to get along with the birds nearby,” said Jason Watters, director of animal behavior research for the Chicago Zoological Society.
The zoo is an ideal setting for the research, because of their extensive records on which penguins are related and have been housed together, Watters said. In the study conducted at Brookfield Zoo, researchers first sought to determine if the penguins were able to recognize familiar individuals by smell.
Researchers took odor samples from glands near the penguins’ tails, where an oil that the birds use for preening is secreted. They rubbed the oil in certain areas and then released the bird to see if they could distinguish between the odors of birds they spent time with and the odors of unfamiliar penguins.
They found that when the birds were exposed to the odors of unfamiliar kin and unfamiliar non-kin, they spent more time in areas with odors of unfamiliar non-kin, indicating they were probably able to determine by smell which animals they were related to and were more curious about the novel odors. Being able to make the distinction may help the penguins avoid mating with kin, researchers said. The discovery also could assist zoos in managing their breeding programs.
The ability of birds to be able to recognize familiar scents and thus be guided to their home territory also has potential value to naturalists, Watters said. “You could imagine that if you were trying to reintroduce birds to an area, you could first treat the area with an odor the birds were familiar with. That would make them more likely to stay.”
Research article: Odor-Based Recognition of Familiar and Related Conspecifics: A First Test Conducted on Captive Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscushumboldti)
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