Odourant dominance in olfactory mixture processing: what makes a strong odourant?

Proc Biol Sci. 2015 Mar 7;282(1802):20142562. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2562.


The question of how animals process stimulus mixtures remains controversial as opposing views propose that mixtures are processed analytically, as the sum of their elements, or holistically, as unique entities different from their elements. Overshadowing is a widespread phenomenon that can help decide between these alternatives. In overshadowing, an individual trained with a binary mixture learns one element better at the expense of the other. Although element salience (learning success) has been suggested as a main explanation for overshadowing, the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon remain unclear. We studied olfactory overshadowing in honeybees to uncover the mechanisms underlying olfactory-mixture processing. We provide, to our knowledge, the most comprehensive dataset on overshadowing to date based on 90 experimental groups involving more than 2700 bees trained either with six odourants or with their resulting 15 binary mixtures. We found that bees process olfactory mixtures analytically and that salience alone cannot predict overshadowing. After normalizing learning success, we found that an unexpected feature, the generalization profile of an odourant, was determinant for overshadowing. Odourants that induced less generalization enhanced their distinctiveness and became dominant in the mixture. Our study thus uncovers features that determine odourant dominance within olfactory mixtures and allows the referring of this phenomenon to differences in neural activity both at the receptor and the central level in the insect nervous system.

Keywords: honeybees; mixture processing; odourant dominance; olfaction; olfactory learning; overshadowing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohols
  • Aldehydes
  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Ketones
  • Odorants
  • Smell / physiology


  • Alcohols
  • Aldehydes
  • Ketones

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.FD128