The smell of good food: volatile infochemicals as resource quality indicators



  1. Foraging success generally depends on various environmental and physiological factors. Particularly for organisms with limited motility such as gastropods, food searching is a very cost-intensive process. As energy gain through foraging is dependent on both resource quality and quantity, consumers have to be able to differentiate between varying resource items.
  2. The effectiveness of food searching could be increased through the perception of diet-derived chemical signals that convey information about a food resource's quality over a certain distance. This strategy would clearly help to optimize movement decisions.
  3. In this study, we investigated the foraging behaviour of a freshwater gastropod towards volatile signal substances released from benthic algae grown under high and low nutrient availability, representing high and low food quality, using behavioural assays in the laboratory.
  4. Our results demonstrate that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) serve as foraging kairomones for these aquatic, benthic herbivores. Further, we were able to show for the first time that snails are able to differentiate between high- and low-quality food sources, only by the perception of food odours alone (volatile infochemicals).
  5. Gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry demonstrated quantitative as well as qualitative differences in the chemical composition of the VOCs bouquet, dependent on algal nutrient content.
  6. Our results suggest that the recognition of resource quality via the reception of signal substances is likely to be adaptive for consumers with low mobility to maximize ingestion of high-quality resources.