Spatial memory-based behaviors for locating sources of odor plumes

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Background: Many animals must locate odorant point sources during key behaviors such as reproduction, foraging and habitat selection. Cues from such sources are typically distributed as air- or water-borne chemical plumes, characterized by high intermittency due to environmental turbulence and episodically rapid changes in position and orientation during wind or current shifts. Well-known examples of such behaviors include male moths, which have physiological and behavioral specializations for locating the sources of pheromone plumes emitted by females. Male moths and many other plume-following organisms exhibit "counter-turning" behavior, in which they execute a pre-planned sequence of cross-stream movements spanning all or part of an odorant plume, combined with upstream movements towards the source. Despite its ubiquity and ecological importance, theoretical investigation of counter-turning has so far been limited to a small subset of plausible behavioral algorithms based largely on classical biased random walk gradient-climbing or oscillator models. Results: We derive a model of plume-tracking behavior that assumes a simple spatially-explicit memory of previous encounters with odorant, an explicit statistical model of uncertainty about the plume's position and extent, and the ability to improve estimates of plume characteristics over sequential encounters using Bayesian updating. The model implements spatial memory and effective cognitive strategies with minimal neural processing. We show that laboratory flight tracks of Manduca sexta moths are consistent with predictions of our spatial memory-based model. We assess plume-following performance of the spatial memory-based algorithm in terms of success and efficiency metrics, and in the context of "contests" in which the winner is the first among multiple simulated moths to locate the source. Conclusions: Even rudimentary spatial memory can greatly enhance plume-following. In particular, spatial memory can maintain source-seeking success even when plumes are so intermittent that no pheromone is detected in most cross-wind transits. Performance metrics reflect trade-offs between "risk-averse" strategies (wide cross-wind movements, slow upwind advances) that reliably but slowly locate odor sources, and "risk-tolerant" strategies (narrow cross-wind movements, fast upwind advances) that often fail to locate a source but are fast when successful. Success in contests of risk-averse vs. risk-tolerant behaviors varies strongly with the number of competitors, suggesting empirically testable predictions for diverse plume-following taxa. More generally, spatial memory-based models provide tractable, explicit theoretical linkages between sensory biomechanics, neurophysiology and behavior, and ecological and evolutionary dynamics operating at much larger spatio-temporal scales.




Grünbaum, D., & Willis, M. A. (2015). Spatial memory-based behaviors for locating sources of odor plumes. Movement Ecology, 3(1).

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