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The Green Life: Love Stinks: Penguins Sniff Out Mates

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September 22, 2011

Love Stinks: Penguins Sniff Out Mates

Penguin couple The plot of Happy Feet — the animated tale of a penguin who uses dance rather than song to woo a mate — could have played out differently, provided those tap-dancing feet were also smelly. Scientists have discovered that penguins use odor to identify friends, family, and lovers.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and the Chicago Zoological Society took samples from the oil glands of endangered Humboldt penguins and distributed the odiferous substance inside kennels at the Brookfield Zoo. The captive birds were then allowed to explore the area, guided by their olfactory senses. When provided with a choice between the scent of familiar bird or that of a stranger, the penguins choose familiar odors. However, if given the option of two unknown smells — one from a relative and the other from a non-relative — penguins gravitated toward the scent of a sexy stranger from a different gene pool.

Smell-based recognition may prevent inbreeding and help the monogamous species keep track of their mates and offspring, say researchers. The study, published in PLoS ONE, claims to be the first "to provide evidence of odor-based kin discrimination in a bird," and could help conservationists improve breeding programs for the endangered birds. Penguin matchmakers, it seems, will need a nose for details.

--Della Watson / photo by iStockphoto/barsik

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