Scent Of A Lobster

Story Number: NNS011227-05Release Date: 12/27/2001 9:13:00 AM
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By Office of Naval Research Public Affairs

ARLINGTON, Va. (NNS) -- No question about it, spiny
lobsters aren't pretty. Keith Ward, chair of the Office of
Naval Research's Biomolecular and Biosystems Science and
Technology Group, doesn't particularly like their looks
either, but he knows their sense of smell is astounding.

Researchers funded by Ward's office figure that a
lobster's 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 at Berkeley and
her colleagues are studying the small hairs on the lobsters'
olfactory antennules.

They've discovered that these hairs can capture odors at
very resolution, but they've yet to figure out exactly how
that information gets to the lobsters' brains.

Koehl, along with Jeffrey Koseff and John Crimaldi at
Stanford University in Calfornia 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 lobster's
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

A computerized motor reproduced the motion of a real
lobster's 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 signals in the brain of the

"Our work capitalizes on a growing trend called
biomimicry, " says Crimaldi, who now continues odor research
at the University of Colorado. "We use nature as a model for
designing an engineered system. The lobster had millions of
years to learn how to accomplish an exceedingly difficult
task with relative efficiency, but hopefully we won't take
that long."

"We now understand the mechanism that allows the
chemosensory hairs to catch odor traces," says Koehl. The big
question now is how various crustaceans use the odor maps to
locate the source of the odor. "Lobsters and other
crustaceans are very successful at finding the sources of
odors in the messy, turbulent water flow in the ocean. By
understanding the physics, we gain insights for the design of
man-made chemical-sensing antennae that can be used in the
same kind of environments."

Which is precisely why the Navy is interested spiny
lobsters and their sniffing abilities.

"We expect that these studies will provide us with
important clues about how we can best develop a new class of
sensitive chemical sensors that the Navy needs in order to
locate and identify unexploded ordnance in very shallow
marine waters," says Ward.

For more information on this story, please contact Gail
Cleere in ONR's Public Affairs Office at For more information on ONR, go to

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