Monday 27 February 2012

Can a whale's nose lead it to food?

Julie Hagelin remembers the day she hugged a rare New Zealand kakapo parrot to her chest. The soft, green bird emitted the scent of lavender, like dust and honey; it lingered on Hagelin's T-shirt for hours. That powerful essence inspired her question to the revered biologist for whom she was working. Was the bird's pleasant odor attractive to other birds?

"Julie, don't you know birds can't smell?"

Hagelin, now a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and then a volunteer on a once-in-a-lifetime project, nodded politely. But the thought kept bouncing around her inquiring young mind: "How do we know birds can't smell?"

Thus began a recurring theme in Hagelin's work that has taken her from St. Lawrence Island, where auklets gathered by the thousands mysteriously emit the scent of tangerines, to Creamer's Field, where she has applied peppermint oil to the nests of house sparrows to see if they return to a smell they know.

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