Making sense of scents in the environment

Welcome to the Chemical Ecology and Conservation Behavior Lab

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The ability to detect and escape from threat, as well as to find a compatible mate are the fundamental drivers of evolution. Many organisms– including humans– evolved as ‘macrosmatic’ animals that utilize scents and odors to communicate and detect biologically meaningful information within species through semiochemicals (pheromones) and between species through allelochemicals (kairomones). This phenomena happens on a subconscious level and most animals would be unaware that many of their defense and reproductive-related behaviors are released (triggered) from chemicals secreted from other animals. With the vast amount of chemicals interacting within complex plumes across the landscape, we are only beginning to understand the role that chemical manipulation and biological engineering may have on wildlife management and conservation behavior.

Research in our lab includes field and laboratory approaches to address contemporary and fundamental questions relating to escapability and coping mechanisms by prey , with a particular emphasis on animals of conservation interest. We are using the comparative approach to draw generalizations from a variety of predator-prey systems regarding early detection systems, multimodal signalling and socially mediated transmission of complex ‘packets’ of information. We have particular interests in how animals make decisions within the complex milieu of chemical ‘noise’ in the natural environment (chemical ecology), and how they relate this information to conspecifics (chemical-mediated social transmission), and ultimately how non-intended recipients– such as potential prey— have co-adapted to intercept, or eavesdrop, on these complex communicants.

We have employed theoretical, observational and experimental approaches to investigate detection systems for threat, plasticity of responses (habituation and sensitization) and consequences for these behaviors. While we are not restricted to any particular animal taxa or geographic location, our work falls within the themes of

1.) chemical ecology and wildlife management; and

2.) behavioral discrimination assays; and

3.) ecological informatics

Theoretical outcomes include understanding how trophic dynamics are mediated through scent/odors (e.g., the cascade that occurs when a non-intended recipient organism intercepts a signal from another species, and the consequences of this animals scent in relation to yet other organisms). Applications of our work contributed to novel ideas for integrated pest management (IPM), and enhanced training tools for animal conservation and welfare.

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