The Pungent Smell of Success
Not one but two scientific studies linking birds to foul odors were released this week. The stinky results may actually have some side benefits for birds, and the planet as a whole. It’s a headline-writer’s dream!
First up is a paper appearing in the new issue of the journal Science. It describes a Spanish researcher’s finding that Great Spotted Cuckoos somewhat make up for their brood-parasitism habit. That is, cuckoo nestlings shunted into Carrion Crow nests can secrete a godawful-smelling substance that keeps potential predators at bay and thereby protects their nestmates. Of course, it doesn’t protect the nestmates from competing with the baby cuckoos’ voracious appetites, especially when predators aren’t much of a threat, but you can’t win ’em all. (If you’re fluent in Spanish, check out a video of the researchers discussing their work here.)
Not to be outdone, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a report linking phytoplankton, krill, Southern Ocean seabirds, and–believe it or not–climate change. Here’s the basic idea: when phytoplankton in the ocean fall prey to krill (shrimp-like crustaceans), they release a chemical that generates the funky-smelling dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which attracts Albatrosses, Petrels, Shearwaters, and Prions, who in turn eat the krill. But the birds can’t process the iron in the krill very well, so that gets excreted back into the ocean, where it nurtures more phytoplankton. At the same time, the dying phytoplankton’s DMS also plays a role in forming clouds, which help to keep the planet’s temperature in check. Declines in the populations of these seabirds, authors note, could be a factor in climate change.
What other way is there to sign off than, as Nelson Muntz puts it, smell ya later?
(Juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo image by Yathin S. Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons; Buller’s Shearwater photo by Duncan.)