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Sense of smell is key factor in bird navigation, new study shows

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August 29, 2017 University of Oxford  read full ScienceDaily article here

…researchers from the universities of Oxford, Barcelona and Pisa have shown in a new experiment that olfaction — or sense of smell — is almost certainly a key factor in long-distance oceanic navigation….The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Study leader Oliver Padget, a doctoral candidate in Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘Navigation over the ocean is probably the extreme challenge for birds, given the long distances covered, the changing environment, and the lack of stable landmarks……removing a bird’s sense of smell does not appear to impair either its motivation to return home or its ability to forage effectively.

However, although the anosmic birds made successful trips to the Catalan coast and other distant foraging grounds, they showed significantly different orientation behaviour from the controls during the at-sea stage of their return journeys. Instead of being well-oriented towards home when they were out of sight of land, they embarked on curiously straight but poorly oriented flights across the ocean, as if following a compass bearing away from the foraging grounds without being able to update their position.

Their orientation then improved when approaching land, suggesting that birds must consult an olfactory map when out of sight of land but are subsequently able to find home using familiar landscape features….’To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study that follows free-ranging foraging trips in sensorily manipulated birds. ..


Cory’s Shearwater, Calonectris borealis, in flight.
Credit: © hstiver / Fotolia

O. Padget, G. Dell’Ariccia, A. Gagliardo, J. González-Solís, T. Guilford. Anosmia impairs homing orientation but not foraging behaviour in free-ranging shearwaters. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-09738-5

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