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Penguins can smell a relative, new study finds

Humboldt penguins their habitBrookfield Zoo.
Penguins like these were part University Chicago study based on
their sense smell. | Jim Schulz~Chicago Zoological

Humboldt penguins in their habitat at the Brookfield Zoo. Penguins like these were part of a University of Chicago study based on their sense of smell. | Jim Schulz~Chicago Zoological Society.

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:49AM

Penguins are known for their happy feet. Maybe they should be known for their sense of smell, too.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have found evidence that birds, such as penguins, have a sense of smell that is more developed than previously thought. The researchers came to this conclusion after a study at the Brookfield Zoo involving a dozen Humboldt penguins.

In the study, the penguins were exposed to the odors of unfamiliar related penguins and unfamiliar non-related penguins. The penguins spent more time around the odors of the non-related penguins because they were curious about the new scent.

Heather Coffin, lead author of the study, believes birds use their developed sense of smell to identify if a potential mate is related. “Smell is likely the primary mechanism for kin recognition to avoid inbreeding within the colony,” she said.

Coffin did the study as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. She was assisted by Jill Mateo, associate professor in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, and Jason Watters, director of animal behavior research for the Chicago Zoological Society.

Mateo noted that while this study is the first indication of birds using smell to prevent inbreeding, it has been proven that birds have used their sense of smell for other purposes — like finding home and food.

Researchers hope the study assists zoos like Brookfield with their mating programs, as many species of birds, including Humboldt penguins, are endangered.

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