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Oecologia. 2009 Mar;159(3):679-87. doi: 10.1007/s00442-008-1248-y. Epub 2009 Jan 13.

Separating natural responses from experimental artefacts: habitat selection by a diadromous fish species using odours from conspecifics and natural stream water.

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Department of Resource Management and Geography, Melbourne School of Land and Environment, University of Melbourne, 221 Bouverie St, Parkville, VIC, Australia.


Animals use sensory stimuli to assess and select habitats, mates and food as well as to communicate with other individuals. One way they do this is to use olfaction, whereby they identify and respond to chemical cues. All organisms release odours, which mix with other chemical substances and ambient environmental conditions. The result is that animals are frequently immersed in a complex, highly dynamic sensory environment where they must identify and respond to only some of the potential stimuli they encounter in the face of significant levels of background noise. Understanding how organisms respond to different chemical cues is therefore dependent on knowing how these responses might be influenced by potential interactions with other stimuli. To test this, we examined whether the diadromous fish Galaxias maculatus was attracted to conspecific odours and whether this response differed when cues were offered in an artificial environment lacking other potential chemical stimuli (tap water) or a more natural background environment (stream water). We found that (1) fish responded to both natural stream water odours and those from conspecifics but the response to the latter was stronger; (2) the attraction to conspecific odours was stronger in tap water than in stream water, which indicates the importance of these odours may be overestimated when they are offered in artificial media. We also conducted a brief literature review, which confirmed that artificial media are commonly used in experiments and that the background environment is often not considered. Our results show that future research testing the responses of organisms to auditory, olfactory and visual cues should carefully consider the context in which cues are presented. Without doing so, such studies may inaccurately assess the importance of sensory cues in natural situations in the wild.

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