Forty years of olfactory navigation in birds

Anna Gagliardo
Journal of Experimental Biology 2013 June 15, 216 (Pt 12): 2165-71
Forty years ago, Papi and colleagues discovered that anosmic pigeons cannot find their way home when released at unfamiliar locations. They explained this phenomenon by developing the olfactory navigation hypothesis: pigeons at the home loft learn the odours carried by the winds in association with wind direction; once at the release site, they determine the direction of displacement on the basis of the odours perceived locally and orient homeward. In addition to the old classical experiments, new GPS tracking data and observations on the activation of the olfactory system in displaced pigeons have provided further evidence for the specific role of olfactory cues in pigeon navigation. Although it is not known which odours the birds might rely on for navigation, it has been shown that volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere are distributed as fairly stable gradients to allow environmental odour-based navigation. The investigation of the potential role of olfactory cues for navigation in wild birds is still at an early stage; however, the evidence collected so far suggests that olfactory navigation might be a widespread mechanism in avian species.

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