Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 34, Issue 7, pp 837–853 | Cite as

Physical Processes and Real-Time Chemical Measurement of the Insect Olfactory Environment

  • Jeffrey A. Riffell
  • Leif Abrell
  • John G. Hildebrand
Review Article


Odor-mediated insect navigation in airborne chemical plumes is vital to many ecological interactions, including mate finding, flower nectaring, and host locating (where disease transmission or herbivory may begin). After emission, volatile chemicals become rapidly mixed and diluted through physical processes that create a dynamic olfactory environment. This review examines those physical processes and some of the analytical technologies available to characterize those behavior-inducing chemical signals at temporal scales equivalent to the olfactory processing in insects. In particular, we focus on two areas of research that together may further our understanding of olfactory signal dynamics and its processing and perception by insects. First, measurement of physical atmospheric processes in the field can provide insight into the spatiotemporal dynamics of the odor signal available to insects. Field measurements in turn permit aspects of the physical environment to be simulated in the laboratory, thereby allowing careful investigation into the links between odor signal dynamics and insect behavior. Second, emerging analytical technologies with high recording frequencies and field-friendly inlet systems may offer new opportunities to characterize natural odors at spatiotemporal scales relevant to insect perception and behavior. Characterization of the chemical signal environment allows the determination of when and where olfactory-mediated behaviors may control ecological interactions. Finally, we argue that coupling of these two research areas will foster increased understanding of the physicochemical environment and enable researchers to determine how olfactory environments shape insect behaviors and sensory systems.


Odor plume Insect behavior Odor-plume tracking PTRMS Mass spectrometry Gas chromatography Odor landscape 



We thank C. Reisenman, H. Lei, and C. M. Jones for comments during earlier versions of this manuscript. We especially thank H. Thistle, C. A. Zimmer, and R. K. Zimmer for discussions on odor plume dynamics and atmospheric processes. This work was supported by National Institute of Health grant DC-02751 (JGH), National Science Foundation grant CHE-0216226, and a seed grant from the University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science. J. A. R. was supported by a NIH postdoctoral training grant (2 K12 GM000708-06).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey A. Riffell
    • 1
    • 3
  • Leif Abrell
    • 2
    • 3
  • John G. Hildebrand
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.ARL Division of NeurobiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Center for Insect ScienceUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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