The NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

When it comes to selecting a mate, the animal kingdom gives each species its own particular skills of seduction. For some, it’s shaking brightly coloured feathers, whistling a swoon-worthy love song, or fighting a competitor to win their mate’s affection. But it’s not always about looks and athleticism. For some species, smell is the way to a lover’s heart.

Leanne Grieves, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario, is investigating how chemical communication among song sparrows influences mate choice. She theorizes that song sparrows can smell whether a potential mate has the genes to stay healthy in the long run.

Over 70% of bird species worldwide are affected by malaria. Birds, like all vertebrate animals, have a group of genes called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) that help the immune system recognize foreign elements. When the alleles that make up this gene are diverse, animals are better protected from disease. Grieves is researching whether song sparrows are capable of using smell to assess how healthy a potential mate is, and how compatible their MHC genotype is with that of the scent-receiver. Bacteria living on animals’ bodies and in their scent-producing glands may influence or even produce these body odours.

Grieves’ work will also explore and characterize the bacterial communities living on these birds. Grieves’ research will be a significant contribution to evolutionary biology, increasing knowledge of the cues that birds and other species use to choose mates and produce healthy offspring. It will also provide a better understanding of how infections spread through species, allowing us to better anticipate the threats of future diseases to wildlife populations.

The NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research is awarded to an outstanding recipient of an NSERC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship who best exemplifies interdisciplinary research. The award is valued at $10,000 and was established in 2012 by Gilles Brassard, winner of the 2009 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.