Uropygial gland volatiles may code for olfactory information about sex, individual, and species in Bengalese finches Lonchura striata

Jian-Xu Zhang, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Lixing Sun, Central Washington University
Ming-Xue Zuo, Beijing Normal University

This article was originally published in Current Zoology. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Over-shadowed by eye-catching vocal and visual signals, chemical communication has long been overlooked in birds. This study aimed at exploring whether volatile composition of the uropygial gland secretion (UGS) of birds was associated with the information about sex, individual and species. By using dichloromethane extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), we analyzed the UGS volatiles of domesticated Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata, Estrildiea) which is also known as white-rumped munias. We characterized 16 volatile molecules from the UGS, including eight n-alkanols, five diesters, an ester, an aldehyde and a fatty acid, and quantified them in terms of GC peak area percentages (relative abundances). Among these compounds, hexadecanol and octadecanol were major components in both sexes. The former was richer in males than in females and the latter richer in females than in males, suggesting that they might be male and female pheromone candidates, respectively. The high inter-individual variations, in relative abundance, of the UGS volatiles implied that these compounds might carry information about individuality. The similarity between GC profiles of the UGS and wing feather from same individuals indicates that the birds might preen the secretion to their feathers to transmit chemical cues. Additionally, by comparing with three sympatric passerine species, i. e., zebra finches Taeniopygia guttata, yellow-bowed buntings Emberiza chrysophrys and rooks Corvus frugilegus, we found that the composition of C13 - C18 alkanols in the UGS might code for information about species. Our study also showed that quantitative differences (degree) of same UGS volatiles might be the key for the Bengalese finch to code for information about sex and individuality whereas both the kind and degree of UGS constituents could be utilized to code for information about species.