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Eur J Neurosci. 2010 Jun;31(11):2062-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2010.07240.x. Epub 2010 May 31.

Navigation-induced ZENK expression in the olfactory system of pigeons (Columba livia).

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Biopsychology, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr-University Bochum, Universitätsstrasse 150, GAFO 05/623, 44780 Bochum, Germany.


A large body of evidence indicates that pigeons use olfactory cues to navigate over unfamiliar areas with a differential contribution of the left and right hemispheres. In particular, the right nostril/olfactory bulb (OB) and left piriform cortex (Cpi) have been demonstrated to be crucially involved in navigation. In this study we analysed behaviour-induced activation of the olfactory system, indicated by the expression of the immediate early gene ZENK, under different homing conditions. One experimental group was released from an unfamiliar site, the second group was transported to the unfamiliar site and back to the loft, and the third group was released in front of the loft. To evaluate the differential contribution of the left and/or right olfactory input, the nostrils of the pigeons were either occluded unilaterally or not. Released pigeons revealed the highest ZENK cell density in the OB and Cpi, indicating that the olfactory system is activated during navigation from an unfamiliar site. The groups with no plug showed the highest ZENK cell density, supporting the activation of the olfactory system probably being due to sensory input. Moreover, both Cpis seem to contribute differently to the navigation process. Only occlusion of the right OB resulted in a decreased ZENK cell expression in the Cpi, whereas occlusion of the left nostril had no effect. This is the first study to reveal neuronal activation patterns in the olfactory system during homing. Our data show that lateralized processing of olfactory cues is indeed involved in navigation over unfamiliar areas.

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