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J Exp Biol. 1996;199(Pt 1):83-91.

Homing in Pacific salmon: mechanisms and ecological basis


Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) are famous for their homing migrations from oceanic feeding grounds to their natal river to spawn. During these migrations, salmon travel through diverse habitats (e.g. oceans, lakes, rivers), each offering distinct orientation clues and, perhaps, requiring distinct sensory capabilities for navigation. Despite these challenges, homing is generally precise and this philopatry has resulted in reproductively isolated spawning populations with specialized adaptations for their natal habitat. This paper reviews the mechanisms underlying all aspects of salmon homing but emphasizes the final, freshwater phase governed by olfactory recognition of homestream water. Prior to their seaward migration, juvenile salmon learn (imprint on) odors associated with their natal site and later, as adults, use these odor memories for homing. Our understanding of this imprinting process is derived primarily from studies using artificial odorants and hatchery-reared salmon. Recent findings suggest, however, that such studies may underestimate the complexity of the imprinting process in nature.

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