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J Exp Biol. 2009 Dec;212(Pt 23):3823-7. doi: 10.1242/jeb.033068.

Perception of airborne odors by loggerhead sea turtles.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.


Sea turtles are known to detect chemical cues, but in contrast to most marine animals, turtles surface to breathe and thus potentially have access to olfactory cues both in air and in water. To determine whether sea turtles can detect airborne chemical cues, captive loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) were placed into a circular, water-filled arena in which odorants could be introduced to the air above the water surface. Air that had passed across the surface of a cup containing food elicited increased activity, diving and other behavior normally associated with feeding. By contrast, air that had passed across the surface of an identical cup containing distilled water elicited no response. Increases in activity during food odor trials occurred only after turtles surfaced to breathe and peaked in the first post-breath minute, implying that the chemical cues eliciting the responses were unlikely to have been detected while the turtles were under water. These results provide the first direct evidence that sea turtles can detect airborne odors. Under natural conditions, this sensory ability might function in foraging, navigation or both.

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