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article imagePenguins use smell to identify relatives and to avoid inbreeding

By Igor I. Solar     Sep 26, 2011 in Science
Chicago - A study in captive Humboldt penguins revealed that these birds use smell to identify their partner and offspring; it also allows them to evade mating with relatives thus avoiding incest and the problems caused by inbreeding.
Most penguins are monogamous during the breeding season and some of them, such as the Humboldt penguins, are often monogamous for life. Other important characteristics are that during the mating season penguins form very large colonies and birds of the same species are very similar in appearance.
During the mating season Humboldt penguins take turns to travel to the ocean in search of food to assist in feeding their partner and their two chicks. How do they recognize their nest in the large colony and identify their partners and offspring when they return from the foraging trip?
A study by researchers at the University of Chicago recently published in PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science) reports on experiments conducted in Humboldt penguins in captivity at the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, that led to the conclusion that penguins use the sense of smell to recognize familiar odours of their relatives and, since their offspring return to the same nesting colony the following season and can potentially become a breeding partner, the birds use the same ability to identify prospective partners by excluding familiar smells, thus avoiding situations of incest and minimizing potential problems of inbreeding.
Emperor penguins - How do penguins recognize their nest in the large colony and identify their partn...
Emperor penguins - How do penguins recognize their nest in the large colony and identify their partners and offspring when they return from a foraging trip?
The study was carried out by Heather R. Coffin, Jason V. Watters and Jill M. Mateo, researchers of the University of Chicago and the Chicago Zoological Society. “We show that Humboldt penguins… discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar non-kin odours (using prior association) and between unfamiliar kin and non-kin odours (using phenotype matching). Penguins preferred familiar non-kin odours, which may be associated with the recognition of nest mates and colony mates and with locating burrows at night after foraging. In tests of kin recognition, penguins preferred unfamiliar non-kin odours. Penguins may have perceived non-kin odours as novel because they did not match the birds' recognition templates.” said the researchers in their report.
According to experts on behaviour and social recognition in birds, these results contribute significantly to the understanding of how birds use smell to guide behaviour:“The work by the research group is truly ground-breaking in that it shows for the first time ever in birds how the olfactory sense of captive penguins is both informative and functional in a behaviourally critical context: namely the recognition of friends from foes in general, and relatives from non-relatives in particular,” said professor Mark E. Hauber a specialist on bird social recognition at Hunter College.
In the wild, Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) inhabit the Pacific coast from Northern Peru to central Chile. The conservation status of this species of penguin is considered threatened due to a declining population caused by several threats including over-fishing, entanglement in fishing nets, climate change, ocean acidification and habitat destruction. The current population is estimated at around 12,000 breeding pairs of which about 8,000 pairs inhabit along the Chilean coast. In August 2010 the Humboldt penguin of Chile and Peru together with four species of New Zealand penguins were granted protection under the United States Endangered Species Act.
Humboldt penguins - Penguins are monogamous  very affectionate and can recognize the odour of their ...
Humboldt penguins - Penguins are monogamous, very affectionate and can recognize the odour of their partner.
More about Penguins, Humboldt penguins, sense of smell, odours, Brookfield Zoo
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