Magazine article Science News

Certain Seabirds Drawn by the Smell of Food

Magazine article Science News

Certain Seabirds Drawn by the Smell of Food

Article excerpt

Some inconspicuous seabirds, such as prions and white-chinned petrels, behave like the bloodhounds of the Antarctic skies, a new study suggests.

These birds apparently use their sense of smell to track down food in the vast expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean, Gabrielle A. Nevitt of the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues assert in the Aug. 24 Nature. The birds may locate zooplankton, tiny ocean animals that they feed on, by following the odor of dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which gets released when zooplankton graze on phytoplankton (single-celled plants). The team estimates that these birds can detect normal ambient concentrations of DMS from up to 4 kilometers away.

Ornithologists have only recently accepted the idea that birds can smell at all, and most researchers who study their foraging techniques ignore the significance of odors, contends Bernice M. Wenzel, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine.

DMS has also piqued the interest of climatologists, who are debating whether the compound could increase the concentration of cloud-forming particles in the atmosphere and alter temperatures (SN: 12/10/88, p. 375).

From their ship, Nevitt and her colleagues sprayed both a DMS-scented and an unscented aerosol plume into the air. They also poured out cod-liver oil and unscented and DMS-scented vegetable oil, which formed slicks on the water. Concentrations of DMS resembled what the birds might naturally encounter.

On average, twice as many birds came to the DMS-scented slicks as the unscented oil, and they found the scent as enticing as cod-liver oil. …

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