No question about it spiny lobsters arent pretty. Keith Ward, chair of ONRs Biomolecular and Biosystems Science and Technology Group, doesnt particularly like their looks either, but he knows their sense of smell is astounding. Researchers funded by Ward figure that a lobsters extraordinary ability to sniff out all kinds of odor trails in the water is just what the Navy would like an unmanned vehicle to be able to do.
Mimi Koehl at University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues are studying the small hairs on the lobsters olfactory antennules. Theyve discovered that these hairs
can capture odors at very resolution, but theyve yet to figure out exactly how that information gets to the lobsters brains.
Koehl, along with Jeffrey Koseff and John Crimaldi at Stanford placed a mechanical lobster rigged with fresh real
lobster antennule in a tank and used fluorescent dye to simulate an odor plume. They illuminated the plume with a thin sheet of laser light to see just the slice of the plume that the lobsters antennule encountered. The laser revealed that the plume was not just a diffuse cloud, but rather that it was made up of many fine filaments (about a millimeter wide) of swirling dye. A computerized motor reproduced the motion of a real lobsters flicking antennule, and a high-speed camera caught the filaments of dye flowing into the chemosensory hairs when the lobster rapidly flicked its antennule. This sample of the odor plume stayed trapped between the hairs until the next rapid flick of the antennule cleared it out and replaced it with another. Apparently, with each flick of the antennule, a detailed map of the swirling filaments of odor in a plume is captured.
Work is now underway measuring the behavioral algorithms used by the crustaceans when their antennules encounter odor filaments. The next phase of the study will get neuroscientists involved who can relate odor concentrations in the hairs to electrical signal
Contact: Gail S. Cleere
Office of Naval Research