AUGUST 12, 2019
"The sense of smell has been very understudied in birds, particularly songbirds, because they frequently have such impressive plumage and song variation," says Amber Rice, an evolutionary biologist at Lehigh University. "Some other recent work has documented that species of songbird can smell and prefer their species' odors, but this is the first example in currently hybridizing species that we know of." Credit: Lehigh University
Chickadees can smell! That is the news from a study out of Lehigh University, the first to document naturally hybridizing songbirds' preference for the scent of their own species.
Amber Rice, an evolutionary biologist at Lehigh, studies natural hybridization-when separate species come into contact and mate-to better understand how species originate and how existing species are maintained. The two species that make up the hybridized population she studies are the black-capped chickadee and its relative the Carolina chickadee.
Rice and Ph.D. student, Alex Van Huynh, set out to test the potential for scent to act as a mate choice cue, contributing to reproductive isolation between the black-capped and Carolina chickadees who live in the "hybrid zone" in the eastern Pennsylvania region where Lehigh is located.
Huynh and Rice found that both black-capped and Carolina chickadees produce chemically distinct natural oils. Testing both males and females of both chickadee species, they found that males and females prefer the smell of their own species over the smell of the opposite species. These preferences could be impacting hybridization. Their results have been published in an article entitled: "Conspecific olfactory preferences and interspecific divergence in odor cues in a chickadee hybrid zone" in Ecology and Evolution.