Sensory ecology on the high seas: the odor world of the procellariiform seabirds

  • Nevitt G
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Procellariiform seabirds wander the world's oceans aided by olfactory abilities rivaling those of any animal on earth. Over the past 15 years, I have been privileged to study the sensory ecology of procellariiforms, focusing on how olfaction contributes to behaviors, ranging from foraging and navigation to individual odor recognition, in a broader sensory context. We have developed a number of field techniques for measuring both olfactory- and visually based behaviors in chicks and adults of various species. Our choice of test odors has been informed by long-term dietary studies and geochemical data on the production and distribution of identifiable, scented compounds found in productive waters. This multidisciplinary approach has shown us that odors provide different information over the ocean depending on the spatial scale. At large spatial scales (thousands of square kilometers), an olfactory landscape superimposed upon the ocean surface reflects oceanographic or bathymetric features where phytoplankton accumulate and an area-restricted search for prey is likely to be successful. At small spatial scales (tens to hundreds of square kilometers), birds use odors and visual cues to pinpoint and capture prey directly. We have further identified species-specific, sensory-based foraging strategies, which we have begun to explore in evolutionary and developmental contexts. With respect to chemical communication among individuals, we have shown that some species can distinguish familiar individuals by scent cues alone. We are now set to explore the mechanistic basis for these discriminatory abilities in the context of kin recognition, and whether or not the major histocompatibility complex is involved.




Nevitt, G. A. (2008). Sensory ecology on the high seas: the odor world of the procellariiform seabirds. Journal of Experimental Biology, 211(11), 1706–1713.

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