Prenuptial perfume: alloanointing in the social rituals of the crested auklet (Aethia cristatella) and the transfer of arthropod deterrents

Naturwissenschaften. 2008 Jan;95(1):45-53. doi: 10.1007/s00114-007-0294-3. Epub 2007 Aug 17.


Alloanointing, the transfer of chemicals between conspecifics, is known among mammals, but hitherto, the behavior has not been documented for birds. The crested auklet (Aethia cristatella), a colonial seabird of Alaskan and Siberian waters, alloanoints during courtship with fragrant aldehydes that are released from specialized wick-like feathers located in the interscapular region. Crested auklets solicit anointment at the colony, and prospective mates rub bill, breast, head, and neck over wick feathers of their partners. This distributes aldehydes over the head, neck, and face where the birds cannot self-preen. The resulting chemical concentrations are sufficient to deter ectoparasites. Auklets that emit more odorant can transfer more defensive chemicals to mates and are thus more sexually attractive. Behavioral studies showed that crested auklets are attracted to their scent. Wild birds searched for dispensers that emitted their scent and rubbed their bills on the dispensers and engaged in vigorous anointment behaviors. In captive experiments, naïve crested auklets responded more strongly to synthetic auklet scent than controls, and the greatest behavioral response occurred during early courtship. This study extends scientific knowledge regarding functions of alloanointing. Alloanointing had previously been attributed to scent marking and individual recognition in vertebrates. Alloanointing is described here in the context of an adaptive social cue--the transfer of arthropod deterrents between prospective mates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alaska
  • Animals
  • Ceremonial Behavior
  • Charadriiformes / physiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Feathers / anatomy & histology
  • Feathers / ultrastructure
  • Female
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Video
  • Odorants*
  • Seawater
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal*
  • Siberia
  • Social Behavior