Experimental evidence that symbiotic bacteria produce chemical cues in a songbird [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Danielle J. Whittaker, Samuel P. Slowinski, Jonathan M. Greenberg, Osama Alian, Andrew D. Winters, Madison M. Ahmad, Mikayla J. E. Burrell, Helena A. Soini, Milos V. Novotny, Ellen D. Ketterson, and Kevin R. Theis

Symbiotic microbes that inhabit animal scent glands can produce volatile compounds used as chemical signals by the host animal. Though several studies have demonstrated correlations between scent gland bacterial community structure and host animal odour profiles, none have systematically demonstrated a causal relationship. In birds, volatile compounds in preen oil secreted by the uropygial gland serve as chemical cues and signals. Here we test whether manipulating the uropygial gland microbial community affects chemical profiles in the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). We found an effect of antibiotic treatment targeting the uropygial gland on both bacterial and volatile profiles. In a second study, we cultured bacteria from junco preen oil, and found that all the cultivars produced at least one volatile compound common in junco preen oil, and that most cultivars produced multiple preen oil volatiles. In both studies, we identified experimentally generated patterns in specific volatile compounds previously shown to predict junco reproductive success. Together, our data provide experimental support for the hypothesis that symbiotic bacteria produce behaviourally relevant volatile compounds within avian chemical cues and signals.

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