How lobsters pick up smells in the sea

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs


lobster hairs

The small hairs visible in the center of this close-up allow a spiny lobster to "smell."
Photo courtesy Jeff Goldman/Duke University, Oxford University Press

05 December 2001 | Aquatic creatures like lobsters and crabs depend on smell to locate food, find a suitable mate or avoid predators, but how do they pluck these odors from the water swirling around them?

A study in the Nov. 30 issue of Science by researchers at Berkeley and Stanford details the sophisticated way in which spiny lobsters sniff their way around a watery world, and may provide strategies for robot-builders looking for efficient ways to create odor sensors.

"If you want to build unmanned vehicles or robots to go into toxic sites where you do not want to send a scuba diver, and if you want those robots to locate something by smell, you need to design noses or olfactory antennae for them," said lead author Mimi Koehl, professor of integrative biology in the College of Letters & Science. "We are learning how animal antennae capture odor molecules from the water around them. We want to understand which designs of odor-catching antennae work successfully in nature so that they will provide inspiration for man-made antennae."

Lobsters and other crustaceans sniff by flicking a pair of antennules, dragging them through the water to bring chemosensory hairs on the ends of the antennules into contact with odor molecules.

The researchers asked whether the incessant flicking of antennules can pick up fine details of the swirling odors, and how odor molecules penetrate into the brush of chemosensory hairs.

The Berkeley researchers made high-speed videos of a lobster flicking its antennules to determine how fast, how far and how often they flicked, and the angles of the downward and return strokes. They also created a mechanical lobster that flicked in the same way and placed it downstream of an odor source to observe how the crustacen pushed odor molecules through its antennules.

The experiments showed that small differences in odor concentration were captured by the array of hairs on the lobster's antennules.

"When you look at the animal kingdom, you see lots of creatures that capture odor from water or air using antennae that are feathery or hairy," Koehl said. "We want to know how these feathery structures interact with water or air when the creatures fly or sit in a current to catch molecules, and which aspects of their design affect how they perform at catching odors."

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