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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Bug Spray for the Birds

Air Date: Week of August 5, 2005

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Living on Earth's Sarah Williams reports a chemical in birds might be the solution to summer's insect pests.

Transcript

YOUNG: Just ahead: Pictures from an execution. A photographer's work documenting the illegal trade in rare animal parts. First, this note on emerging science from Sarah Williams.

WILLIAMS: When marine biologist Hector Douglas arrived on Kiska Island in Alaska to study crested auklets, the first thing he noticed was the birds’ pungent smell. Now, that observation could lead to a potent, new insect repellent. The crested auklets on Kiska Island spend their days on the ocean, feeding on tiny plankton. When the birds return to their nests in the evening, the citrusy odor produced by specialized glands can be detected for miles. Years later, Douglas was studying another population of auklets, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. He noticed the smell again, and this time, something else. The mosquitoes, ticks, lice, and other pests that bothered the island’s other birds didn't bother the auklets. Douglas guessed this was related to their tangerine-like scent. To test his hypothesis, he brought auklet feathers back to his lab and analyzed their chemical make-up. He dabbed samples of the isolated chemicals onto filter paper and attached the paper to his hand. Then he put his hand into a cage swarming with a breed of particularly aggressive mosquitoes. The mosquitoes stayed away, even flying to the other side of the cage to avoid the smell. For auklets, the scent could be a survival advantage, cutting down the chance of diseases that insects carry. For us, Douglas' discovery could lead to a new and powerful commercial insect repellent. The next step, says Douglas, is to do some testing to determine if his Auklet spray would be safe for humans.
That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Sarah Williams.

YOUNG: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

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