Olfactory lateralization in homing pigeons: a GPS study on birds released with unilateral olfactory inputs

Anna Gagliardo, Caterina Filannino, Paolo Ioalè, Tommaso Pecchia, Martin Wikelski, Giorgio Vallortigara
Journal of Experimental Biology 2011 February 15, 214 (Pt 4): 593-8
A large body of evidence has shown that pigeons rely on an olfactory-based navigational map when homing from unfamiliar locations. Previous studies on pigeons released with one nostril occluded highlighted an asymmetry in favour of the right nostril, particularly concerning the initial orientation performance of naïve birds. Nevertheless, all pigeons experiencing only unilateral olfactory input showed impaired homing, regardless of the side of the occluded nostril. So far this phenomenon has been documented only by observing the birds' vanishing bearings. In the present work we recorded the flight tracks of pigeons with previous homing experience equipped with a GPS data logger and released from an unfamiliar location with the right or the left nostril occluded. The analysis of the tracks revealed that the flight path of the birds with the right nostril occluded was more tortuous than that of unmanipulated controls. Moreover, the pigeons smelling with the left nostril interrupted their journey significantly more frequently and displayed more exploratory activity than the control birds, e.g. during flights around a stopover site. These data suggest a more important involvement of the right olfactory system in processing the olfactory information needed for the operation of the navigational map.

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