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Smelling home: a good solution for burrow-finding in nocturnal petrels?
Francesco Bonadonna, Vincent Bretagnolle


Many burrowing petrels are able to return to their nests in complete darkness. The well-developed anatomy of their olfactory system and the attraction that food-related odour cues have for some petrel species suggest that olfaction may be used to recognize the burrow. In contrast, surface-nesting petrels may rely on visual cues to recognise their nest. We performed experiments on nine species of petrel (with different nesting habits) rendered anosmic either by plugging the nostrils or by injecting zinc sulphate onto the nasal epithelium. Compared with shamtreated control birds, we found that anosmia impaired nest recognition only in species that nest in burrows and that return home in darkness. Therefore, petrels showing nocturnal activity on land may rely on their sense of smell to find their burrows, while petrels showing diurnal activity or surface nesters may disregard olfactory cues in favour of visual guidance.

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