What is an Odor Object?
On a visit to the Western Ghats, we observed hundreds of species of phytophagous insects with equally diverse host choices; some specialized on a single plant species, some feeding on a variety of plants. How do these insects locate their hosts in the incredible floral diversity of the rainforest? How do they evolve innate preferences? How could these preferences change following loss or change in habitat? Determining how and why animals make choices in their environment is an essential component to understanding the delicate interplay between species, preserving their ecology, and predicting the impact of invasive species, climate change, and human disturbance. In short, until we understand the evolution and dynamics of their ecology, we have no hope of protecting it.
If you’re like Shannon, one of the first things you want to smell in the morning is your cup of coffee. But, that “coffee” is actually many molecules whose percept is combined in our brain to form a unique feature. Our work in insects (Kuebler et al. 2012; Spaethe et al. 2013) suggests that complex odors can be considered “objects” in much the same way we consider objects as composite images in the visual sense. Our work in Drosophila melanogaster also finds that the signal transduction cascades of insect sensory neurons are ideally suited to localize turbulent odor object plumes during flight (Sargsyan et al. 2011; Getahun et al. 2012, 2013). Insects possess tremendous capabilities to make millisecond olfactory decisions while challenged by the high-speed performance of flight, and provide an ideal model to understand how complex sensory information leads to fast decision making. And, because odor plays a major role for insects to locate conspecifics, food, and oviposition sites, understanding an insect’s “odor objects” can unlock opportunities to generate better pest and pollination management strategies.