Pigeon navigation: exposure to environmental odours prior to release is sufficient for homeward orientation, but not for homing

Anna Gagliardo, Enrica Pollonara, Martin Wikelski
Journal of Experimental Biology 2016 August 15, 219 (Pt 16): 2475-80
The role of environmental olfactory information in pigeon navigation has been extensively studied by analysing vanishing bearing distributions and homing performances of homing pigeons subjected to manipulation of their olfactory perception and/or the olfactory information they were exposed to during transportation and at the release site. However, their behaviour during the homing flight remains undocumented. In this experiment we report the analysis of tracks of birds made anosmic at the release site by washing their olfactory mucosa with zinc sulfate. We thus can assess the role of local odours at the release site as well as the role of environmental odours perceived on the way, far from the release site. We observed that pigeons transported and kept at the release site in purified air and made anosmic at the release site were unable to orient towards home and were impaired at homing. By contrast, pigeons allowed to smell environmental odours during transportation and at the release site, although made anosmic prior to release, displayed unimpaired homeward orientation, but nevertheless showed impaired homing performance. These results are consistent with the view that local odours at the release site are critical for determining the direction of displacement (olfactory map) and suggest that pigeons consult the olfactory map also during their homing flight in order to be able to find their way home.

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