How insects sense olfactory patches – the spatial scaling of olfactory information


P. Andersson, Dept of Botany, Stockholm Univ., SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. E-mail:


When searching for resources in heterogeneous environments, animals must rely on their abilities to detect the resources via their sensory systems. However, variation in the strength of the sensory cue may be mediated by the physical size of the resource patch. Patch detection of insects are often predicted by the scaling of sensory cues to patch size, where visual cues has been proposed to scale proportional to the diameter of the patch. The scaling properties of olfactory cues are, however, virtually unknown. Here, we investigated scaling rules for olfactory information in a gradient of numbers of odour sources, relevant to odour-mediated attraction under field conditions. We recorded moth antennal responses to sex pheromones downwind from pheromone patches and estimated the slope in the scaling relationship between the effective length of the odour plumes and the number of odour sources. These measurements showed that the effective plume length increased proportional to the square root of the number of odour sources. The scaling relationship, as estimated in the field experiment, was then evaluated against field data of the slope in the relationship between trap catch and release rate of chemical attractants for a wide range of insects. This meta-analysis revealed an average slope largely consistent with the estimated scaling relationship between the effective plume length and the number of odour sources. This study is the first to estimate the scaling properties of olfactory cues empirically and has implications for understanding and predicting the spatial distributions of insects searching by means of olfactory cues in heterogeneous environments.