Are Microbes The Source Of A Seabird's Tangerine-Like Scent?

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105th General Meeting Of The American Society For Microbiology


This study provides is the first to examine a possible link between bacteria and the production of a scent used by birds during mating displays. The arctic seabird, the Crest Auklet, is known for a tangerine-like scent that it produces during breeding season. Birds that produce and use social odors are a new area of study. This project is one of the first to enumerate bacteria found associated with feathers from sea birds. Other organisms, including humans, produce skin secretions and scents that are modified by commensal bacteria - ones that normally inhabit the body's surfaces. Some species of bacteria found on the Crested Auklet may have the capacity to convert oils, such as those secreted from the bird's preen gland, to compounds resembling those that smell similar to (but are chemically distinct from) tangerines. In contrast, bacteria found on the feathers of a closely related, unscented relative (the Least Auklet) do not have the same metabolic capacities. Domestic chickens also lacked bacteria capable of producing such scent compounds. The method used to identify bacteria involved isolating and identifying signature DNA on bird feathers. Another contribution of the study is the modification and improvement of methods that optimize bacterial DNA extraction from feathers. Extensions of this study in the future will include laboratory cultures that attempt to reconstruct the tangerine scent production from feathers, oil and the associated bacterial species. In addition, studies comparing bacterial profiles from male and female Crested Auklet feather collected at different times of year are planned. Since commensal bacteria have the capacity to chemically modify the components of perfumes and oils, they can be responsible for producing distinct smells on different individuals. Studies that identify the source and social function of feather odors promise to reveal and entirely new mode of bird communication.


105th General Meeting Of The American Society For Microbiology

Conference Dates

June 5-9, 2005

Conference Location

Atlanta, GA