Gulls Smell Sex

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(Credit for all photographs: Phyllis Costa)

All living creatures release a variety of natural aromas—many we don't usually like to talk about—but a new study on seabirds reveals that gull signature smells are best described as sexy and unique.

The research suggests that when a gull smells another member of its species, it can immediately tell whether or not that individual is a male or female. It can also glean other particular information unique to that bird.

For the study, published in the journal Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature, Sarah Leclaire and her colleagues focused on one type of gull known as the kittiwake. The kittiwake population included in the study nests in the Gulf of Alaska region.

Leclaire, from the National Center of Scientific Research the Université Paul Sabatier in France, and her team collected samples of preen oil and preen down feathers from 21 females and 20 males, to test whether the birds' body odor carried individual and/or sexual signatures likely to reliably signal individual genetic makeup.

The researchers found a total of 68 odor compounds, across both oil and feather samples. They also identified a difference in the amount of odor compounds between males and females, suggesting that scent may be one of the multiple cues used by birds to discriminate between sexes. The authors also detected an individual signature in preen secretions and preen down feathers.

Leclaire and her team concluded, "Our study suggests the existence of two odor signatures in kittiwakes: a sex and an individual signature. These results point to body odor as a signal associated with individual recognition and mate choice. Kittiwakes may be using body odor to assess the genetic compatibility of potential mates."

This has long been speculated to occur in a variety of animals, including humans, but it's often difficult to prove in studies. I wonder if we can identify men and women in a room, just by their scent alone?  My guess is we can.

What's clear is that seabirds have no trouble smelling each other's sex. And while lovebirds are small affectionate parrots, I think the below images suggest that seagulls can be quite affectionate with each other too.

This pair was spotted in Monterey, California, by photographer Phyllis Costa.