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Abstract

In several mammalian species, prenatal exposure to odours can elicit later positive consummatory behaviour in response to substrates bearing that odorant. In birds, the sense of smell has been considerably underestimated, and very little is known about the effects of early sensory experience on the regulation of feeding behaviour. We tested the hypothesis that the feeding behaviour of the domestic chicken could be regulated by olfactory learning during the embryonic life. To that end, chicken embryos were exposed to an olfactory stimulus (blend of essential oil of orange and nature identical vanillin) from embryonic day (ED) 12 to ED20, and chicks were tested between 4 and 9 d of age. In short-term choice tests, at day 4 and 5, chickens previously exposed to a low concentration (LC) of the olfactory stimulus spent a higher proportion of time eating a familiar or an unfamiliar food bearing the olfactory stimulus compared to non-exposed control chickens. Conversely, chickens previously exposed to a high concentration (HC) of the olfactory stimulus were found to avoid all foods bearing the olfactory stimulus. On a 24- h time scale at day 7–8, LC and HC birds, but not controls, ingest significantly less familiar food containing the olfactory stimulus. This result indicated a long-term effect of the early olfactory experience on feeding preferences. We demonstrated that chickens can utilize information from their pre-hatch chemosensory environment to guide their later feeding behaviour. A pre-hatch effect of the intensity of odour signals in the regulation of feeding behaviour is reported here for the first time.