Pheromones and olfaction in the birds and the bees: from yeasts to you

By: James V. Kohl | Published on: January 31, 2011

Homing pigeons depend on their sense of smell to find their way home.
This recent report helps to confirm that olfaction is essential to behavioral development in the birds and the bees (i.e., from insects to vertebrates). In addition, there are now several articles that report on how pheromones are involved in sexual arousal in birds (Ball and Balthazart in press), as well as in mate choice (Whittaker, Soini et al. 2010) (Caro and Balthazart 2010). These and other peer-reviewed publications address the science of cause and effect that is missing from earlier works on avian behavior.
Until recently, visual and auditory signals were considered to be the more salient cues involved in avian species. The downside of this wrong-headed approach to the study of animal behavior is when other species are compared to men and women. Because of the years of research on birds, many of us have been led to believe that our sexual behavior is based on visual and auditory input, with olfactory input and pheromones playing a lesser role. There is no scientific data to suggest this. But, as has been the case with birds, you will no doubt read that humans are primarily visual creatures — especially in the series of articles on love that appear each year in the mass media as some of us approach the celebration of Valentine’s Day. Obviously, some people remain as blind as bats when it comes to love.
Whether you are as blind as any other bat-like mammal, or have the visual acuity of an eagle-eyed avian makes no difference when it comes to the neurophysiological mechanisms of behavioral development, sexual arousal, and mate choice. It’s the pheromones that are most important in every species from yeasts to you.
Ball, G. F. and J. Balthazart (in press). “Sexual arousal, is it for mammals only?” Hormones and Behavior In Press, Accepted Manuscript.
Caro, S. P. and J. Balthazart (2010). “Pheromones in birds: myth or reality?” J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol 2010: 21.
Whittaker, D. J., H. A. Soini, et al. (2010). “Songbird chemosignals: volatile compounds in preen gland secretions vary among individuals, sexes, and populations.” Behavioral Ecology 21(3): 608-614.

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