Spatial information from the odour environment in mammalian olfaction

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The sense of smell is an essential modality for many species, in particular nocturnal and crepuscular mammals, to gather information about their environment. Olfactory cues provide information over a large range of distances, allowing behaviours ranging from simple detection and recognition of objects, to tracking trails and navigating using odour plumes from afar. In this review, we discuss the features of the natural olfactory environment and provide a brief overview of how odour information can be sampled and might be represented and processed by the mammalian olfactory system. Finally, we discuss recent behavioural approaches that address how mammals extract spatial information from the environment in three different contexts: odour trail tracking, odour plume tracking and, more general, olfactory-guided navigation. Recent technological developments have seen the spatiotemporal aspect of mammalian olfaction gain significant attention, and we discuss both the promising aspects of rapidly developing paradigms and stimulus control technologies as well as their limitations. We conclude that, while still in its beginnings, research on the odour environment offers an entry point into understanding the mechanisms how mammals extract information about space.

Journal details

Volume 383
Issue number 1
Pages 473-483
Available online
Publication date