Mechanisms of animal navigation in odor plumes

Biol Bull. 2000 Apr;198(2):203-12. doi: 10.2307/1542524.


Chemical signals mediate many of life's processes. For organisms that use these signals to orient and navigate in their environment, where and when these cues are encountered is crucial in determining behavioral responses. In air and water, fluid mechanics impinge directly upon the distribution of odorous molecules in time and space. Animals frequently employ behavioral mechanisms that allow them to take advantage of both chemical and fluid dynamic information in order to move toward the source. In turbulent plumes, where odor is patchily distributed, animals are exposed to a highly intermittent signal. The most detailed studies that have attempted to measure fluid dynamic conditions, odor plume structure, and resultant orientation behavior have involved moths, crabs, and lobsters. The behavioral mechanisms employed by these organisms are different but generally integrate some form of chemically modulated orientation (chemotaxis) with a visual or mechanical assessment of flow conditions in order to steer up-current or upwind (rheo- or anemo-taxis, respectively). Across-stream turns are another conspicuous feature of odor-modulated tracks of a variety of organisms in different fluid conditions. In some cases, turning is initiated by detection of the lateral edges of a well-defined plume (crabs), whereas in other animals turning appears to be steered according to an internally generated program modulated by odor contacts (moth counterturning). Other organisms such as birds and fish may use similar mechanisms, but the experimental data for these organisms is not yet as convincing. The behavioral strategies employed by a variety of animals result in orientation responses that are appropriate for the dispersed, intermittent plumes dictated by the fluid-mechanical conditions in the environments that these different macroscopic organisms inhabit.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Odorants*
  • Time Factors