Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

How pigeons may smell their way home

06.11.2013
Homing pigeons, like other birds, are extraordinary navigators, but how they manage to find their way back to their lofts is still debated.

To navigate, birds require a ‘map’ (to tell them home is south, for example) and a ‘compass’ (to tell them where south is), with the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field being the preferred compass systems.

A new paper provides evidence that the information pigeons use as a map is in fact available in the atmosphere: odours and winds allow them to find their way home. The results are now published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Experiments over the past 40 years have shown that homing pigeons get disoriented when their sense of smell is impaired or when they don’t have access to natural winds at their home site. But many researchers were not convinced that wind-borne odours could provide the map pigeons need to navigate. Now, Hans Wallraff of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, has shown that the atmosphere does contain the necessary information to help pigeons find their way home.

In previous research, Wallraff collected air samples at over 90 sites within a 200 km radius around a former pigeon loft near Würzburg in southern Germany. The samples revealed that the ratios among certain ‘volatile organic compounds’ (chemicals that can be a source of scents and odours) in the atmosphere increase or decrease along specific directions. “For instance, the percentage of compound A in the sum A+B or A+B+C+D increases the farther one moves from north to south,” Wallraff explains.

These changes in compound ratios translate into changes in perceived smell. But a pigeon that has never left its loft does not know in what directions what changes occur – unless it has been exposed to winds at its home site.

At home, a bird is thought to associate certain smells with particular wind directions. “If the percentage of compound A increases with southerly winds, a pigeon living in a loft in Würzburg learns this wind-correlated increase. If released at a site some 100 km south of home, the bird smells that the ratio of compound A is above what it is on average at its loft and flies north,” Wallraff explains. To use an analogy, a person in Munich could smell an Alpine breeze when there is wind blowing from the south. When displaced closer to the mountains, they would detect a strong Alpine scent and remember that, at home, that smell is associated with southerly winds: the person would know that, roughly, they needed to travel north to find home.

But this explanation of how pigeons might use wind-borne odours to find their loft was just a hypothesis: Wallraff still needed to prove that the atmosphere does indeed contain the basis of the map system pigeons need to navigate. In the new Biogeosciences paper, he develops a model showing that ‘virtual pigeons’ with only knowledge of winds and odours at home, can find their way back to their lofts by using real atmospheric data.

“My virtual pigeons served as tools to select those volatile compounds whose spatial distributions, combined with variations dependent on wind direction, were most suitable for homeward navigation,” explains Wallraff.

The model uses an iterative approach to imitate animal evolution by introducing random mutations in the virtual pigeons, making them most sensitive to those volatile compounds that are most effective for navigation. By selecting the best mutations in the course of thousands of generations, the model creates virtual pigeons capable of finding their bearings as well as real pigeons, showing that even inexperienced birds could use atmospheric information for navigation. The findings present a missing piece in the puzzle of homing pigeon navigation, confirming that winds and odours can indeed work as a map system.

“Work with real pigeons was the beginning of the story. In this research, I wanted to find out whether and in what way the chemical atmosphere fulfils the demands for avian navigation. Eventually, to identify the chemical compounds birds actually use for home-finding, we will need real birds again. But this is far in the future.”

*More information*
This research is presented in the paper ‘Ratios among atmospheric trace gases together with winds imply exploitable information for bird navigation: a model elucidating experimental results’ by Hans Wallraff (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany) published in the EGU open access journal Biogeosciences on 04 November 2013. Please mention the publication if reporting on this story and, if reporting online, include a link to the paper (http://www.biogeosciences.net/10/6929/2013/bg-10-6929-2013.html) or to the journal website (http://www.biogeosciences.net/).

Full citation: Wallraff, H. G.: Ratios among atmospheric trace gases together with winds imply exploitable information for bird navigation: a model elucidating experimental results, Biogeosciences, 10, 6929-6943, doi:10.5194/bg-10-6929-2013, 2013.

The *European Geosciences Union (http://www.egu.eu)* is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002. The EGU has a current portfolio of 15 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 11,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The 2014 EGU General Assembly is taking place is Vienna, Austria from 27 April to 2 May 2014. For information regarding the press centre at the meeting and media registration, please check http://media.egu.eu closer to the time of the conference.

If you wish to receive our press releases via email, please use the press release subscription form at http://www.egu.eu/news/subscribe/. Subscribed journalists and other members of the media receive EGU press releases under embargo (if applicable) 24 hours in advance of public dissemination.

*Contacts*
Hans Wallraff
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
Seewiesen, Germany
Tel: +49-89-8503-361
Email: wallraff@orn.mpg.de
Bárbara Ferreira
EGU Media and Communications Manager
Munich, Germany
Tel: +49-89-2180-6703
Email: media@egu.eu
Weitere Informationen:
http://www.egu.eu/news/81/how-pigeons-may-smell-their-way-home/
(release on the EGU website)
http://www.biogeosciences.net/10/6929/2013/bg-10-6929-2013.html
(scientific paper)
http://www.biogeosciences.net/
(Biogeosciences journal)

Dr. Bárbara Ferreira | idw
Further information:
http://www.egu.eu
http://www.biogeosciences.net/

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Polymers Based on Boron?
18.01.2018 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

nachricht Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production
18.01.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Scientists decipher key principle behind reaction of metalloenzymes

So-called pre-distorted states accelerate photochemical reactions too

What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...

Im Focus: The first precise measurement of a single molecule's effective charge

For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.

Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...

Im Focus: Paradigm shift in Paris: Encouraging an holistic view of laser machining

At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.

No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...

Im Focus: Room-temperature multiferroic thin films and their properties

Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.

Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...

Im Focus: A thermometer for the oceans

Measurement of noble gases in Antarctic ice cores

The oceans are the largest global heat reservoir. As a result of man-made global warming, the temperature in the global climate system increases; around 90% of...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

10th International Symposium: “Advanced Battery Power – Kraftwerk Batterie” Münster, 10-11 April 2018

08.01.2018 | Event News

See, understand and experience the work of the future

11.12.2017 | Event News

Innovative strategies to tackle parasitic worms

08.12.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Polymers Based on Boron?

18.01.2018 | Life Sciences

Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production

18.01.2018 | Life Sciences

World’s oldest known oxygen oasis discovered

18.01.2018 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>