Predation risk and the evolution of odours in island birds
Thesis DisciplineBiological Sciences
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
It is only recently that studies have explored the use of olfaction in birds. Birds are now known to use odour cues for navigation, and locating food. Odours produced by the birds themselves can also function in nest recognition and even mate choice. The odours of most birds stem from the preen wax produced by the uropygial or preen gland. The wax is comprised of a complex mixture of esters and volatiles, and is known to vary in some species with age, sex, season, or environmental conditions. Its function has been associated with feather maintenance, but it may also play a role in sexual selection and chemical communication. In this thesis, I used the preen gland and its preen wax to perform comparative studies on the evolution of odours between island birds and their continental relatives. I used the birds of the Oceania region as a model system, where most passerines originated from continental Australia but have colonised numerous surrounding islands such as New Zealand and New Caledonia. As islands generally lack mammalian predators, and have less parasites and less interspecific competition than continents, these differences in environmental conditions likely shaped functional differences in the preen gland and its products. I measured the size of the preen gland and collected preen wax from a variety of forest passerines in Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. I found that island birds have larger preen glands and therefore likely produce more preen wax than their continental relatives. I also found that the preen wax composition differed among species, with a shift to birds on islands producing disproportionately lighter and more volatile compounds. I suggest that selection favoured the gain of more volatile molecules in island birds as they were released from the constraint to camouflage their odours that is imposed by mammalian predators on continental areas. It is possible that this also allowed greater communication through olfactory channels in island birds, and such communication is enhanced through the use of more volatile compounds. To support this hypothesis I showed that the South Island robin (Petroica australis) was able to detect and react to the odour of a conspecific (odours produced by preen wax) in the absence of any visual cues. From a conservation perspective, increased volatility of the preen waxes of island birds might place them at increased risk from introduced mammalian predators that use olfaction to locate their prey. However, in both laboratory tests using Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus), a common exotic predator, and in field trials using rodent tracking tunnels, I found only limited evidence to suggest the odour of island birds places them at greater risk, and more experiments are needed to test this hypothesis. Finally, my findings of more conspicuous odours in island birds suggest new avenues of research for their conservation, including whether island species that seem especially prone to predation have preen waxes (and thus odours) that are also especially attractive to exotic mammalian predators. Conservation programmes to protect endangered island birds may even benefit from considering whether olfactory cues can be minimised as a method of reducing predation risk.