Begging blue tit nestlings discriminate between the odour of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics

Marta Rossi, Reinaldo Marfull, Sarah Golüke, Jan Komdeur, Peter Korsten, Barbara A. Caspers

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Abstract

Offspring often solicit, and compete for, limited parental care by elaborate begging behaviour. Kin selection theory predicts that competing offspring should modify the intensity of their begging depending on the degree of relatedness to their nest- or litter-mates.

Empirical evidence in birds, which are a key model in the study of parent-offspring interactions, indeed indicates that a lower level of relatedness between offspring in the nest correlates with more intense begging (i.e. more ‘selfish’ behaviour). This implies that competing nestlings can recognize kin, but the mechanism underlying such discrimination is unclear. Birds have long been thought to mainly rely on visual and auditory cues in their social communication, but there is now growing evidence for the importance of olfactory cues too.

To assess the potential importance of olfactory cues in modulating nestling begging behaviour, we experimentally tested in a free-living bird, the blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus, if nestlings discriminate and adjust their begging behaviour depending on their familiarity with a conspecific nestling odour stimulus.

We found that individuals responded with longer and more intense begging bouts to an unfamiliar compared with a familiar odour stimulus.

Our findings provide first evidence for a role of olfaction in modulating offspring begging behaviour in a wild bird population. Although our experiment cannot differentiate between the effects of familiarity and relatedness, it raises the interesting possibility that blue tit nestlings may also discriminate between odours of close kin and less related individuals, and adjust their begging behaviour accordingly. This hypothesis requires further testing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1761-1769
Number of pages9
JournalFunctional Ecology
Volume31
Issue number9
Early online date12 May 2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 04 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Cyanistes caeruleus
  • avian olfaction
  • chemical signalling
  • kin recognition
  • sibling competition

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