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Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Jan 7;277(1678):45-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1521. Epub 2009 Oct 7.

Activational effects of odours on avian navigation.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech, 4100 Derring Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0406, USA.


The sensory basis of the navigational map remains one of the most important and intriguing questions in animal behaviour. In birds, odours have been hypothesized to provide the primary source of map information. Convincing tests have shown that experienced homing pigeons rely on map information obtained at sites where they are exposed to natural odours, even if subsequently released (without additional olfactory information) at a different site. These findings have been interpreted as support for the olfactory map hypothesis. Using this 'false-release-site' (FRS) approach, we compared the effects of exposure to natural odours with that of exposure to a series of artificial odours lacking spatial information. Our findings show that olfactory exposure to either natural or artificial odours at an FRS caused pigeons to rely on map information obtained at the FRS, even if subsequently released at the true-release site in the opposite direction from the home loft. Because artificial odours did not provide map information, however, the findings clearly demonstrate that olfactory exposure provides no navigational information to pigeons whatsoever; instead it activates an independent non-olfactory map system. This test decisively contradicts the olfactory map hypothesis, which predicts that olfactory cues are the primary source of navigational information used by birds.

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