• Odors And Ornaments In Crested Auklets (Aethia Cristatella): Signals Of Mate Quality?

      Douglas, Hector D., Iii; Springer, Alan M. (2006)
      Crested auklets (Aethia cristatella) are small colonial seabirds that display an ornamental feather crest and emit a citrus-like odorant during the breeding season. In this study odors and ornaments were investigated as possible signals of mate quality. Crest size was negatively correlated with the stress hormone corticosterone in males, but this was not the case in females. Body condition was negatively correlated with corticosterone in females, but this was not the case in males. Corticosterone levels were interpreted as an index of physiological condition, and it was concluded that males with longer crests were more competent at meeting the social and energetic costs of reproduction. I hypothesized that the crested auklet odorant: (1) functions as a chemical defense against ectoparasites, (2) is assessed as a basis for mate selection, (3) is facilitated by steroid sex hormones. Laboratory and field experiments showed that synthetic replicas of the crested auklet odorant repelled, impaired, and killed ectoparasites in a dose-dependent fashion. Chemical concentrations in plumage were at least sufficient to repel and impair ectoparasites. Chemical emissions from breeding adult crested auklets peaked at the time of egg hatching when young are most vulnerable to tick parasitism. In males, chemical emissions were correlated with crest size, a basis for mate selection. Presentation of synthetic aldehydes elicited behaviors similar to those that occur during courtship. Captive crested auklets responded preferentially to synthetic replicas of their odor, and the highest frequency of response occurred during early courtship. These results show that the chemical odor could be a basis for mutual mate selection. Production of the chemical odorant may be facilitated by steroid sex hormones since octanal emission rates were correlated with progesterone in males. Finally it was determined that the chemical composition of odorants in crested auklets and whiskered auklets (A. pygmaea) differed in three key respects. This suggests that an evolutionary divergence occurred in the odorants of the two species similar to what has been suggested for ornamental traits. In conclusion, crested auklets appear to communicate with odors and ornaments, and these signals may convey multiple messages regarding condition, quality, and resistance to parasites.