Orientation in birds. Olfactory navigation

F Papi
EXS 1991, 60: 52-85
Research work on the olfactory navigation of birds, which has only recently attracted attention, has shown that many wild species rely on an osmotactic mechanism to find food sources, even at a considerable distance. The homing pigeon, the only bird to have been thoroughly investigated with respect to olfactory navigation, has been found to rely on local odours for homeward orientation, and to integrate olfactory cues perceived during passive transportation with those picked up at the release site. It is possible to design experiments in which birds are given false olfactory information, and predictions about the effects of this can be made and tested. Pigeons are able to home from unfamiliar sites because they acquire an olfactory map extending beyond the area they have flown over. The olfactory map is built up by associating wind-borne odours with the direction from which they come; this was shown by experiments which aimed to prevent, limit or alter this association. One aim of the research work has been to test whether pigeons flying over unfamiliar areas also rely or can learn to rely on non-olfactory cues, depending on their local availability, and/or on the methods of rearing and training applied to them. Various evaluations have been made of the results; the most recent experiments, however, confirm that pigeons do derive directional information from atmospheric odours. A neurobiological approach is also in progress; its results show that some telencephalic areas are involved in orientation and olfactory navigation. The lack of any knowledge about the distribution and chemical nature of the odorants which allow pigeons to navigate hinders progress in this area of research.

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