Biologically meaningful scents: a framework for understanding predator–prey research across disciplines

Michael H. Parsons, Raimund Apfelbach, Peter B. Banks, Elissa Z. Cameron, Chris R. Dickman, Anke S.K. Frank, Menna E. Jones, Ian S. McGregor, Stuart McLean, Dietland Müller-Schwarze, Elisa E. Sparrow, Daniel T. Blumstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Citations (Scopus)


Fear of predation is a universal motivator. Because predators hunt using stealth and surprise, there is a widespread ability among prey to assess risk from chemical information – scents – in their environment. Consequently, scents often act as particularly strong modulators of memory and emotions. Recent advances in ecological research and analytical technology are leading to novel ways to use this chemical information to create effective attractants, repellents and anti-anxiolytic compounds for wildlife managers, conservation biologists and health practitioners. However, there is extensive variation in the design, results, and interpretation of studies of olfactory-based risk discrimination. To understand the highly variable literature in this area, we adopt a multi-disciplinary approach and synthesize the latest findings from neurobiology, chemical ecology, and ethology to propose a contemporary framework that accounts for such disparate factors as the time-limited stability of chemicals, highly canalized mechanisms that influence prey responses, and the context within which these scents are detected (e.g. availability of alternative resources, perceived shelter, and ambient physical parameters). This framework helps to account for the wide range of reported responses by prey to predator scents, and explains, paradoxically, how the same individual predator scent can be interpreted as either safe or dangerous to a prey animal depending on how, when and where the cue was deposited. We provide a hypothetical example to illustrate the most common factors that influence how a predator scent (from dingoes, Canis dingo) may both attract and repel the same target organism (kangaroos, Macropus spp.). This framework identifies the catalysts that enable dynamic scents, odours or odorants to be used as attractants as well as deterrents. Because effective scent tools often relate to traumatic memories (fear and/or anxiety) that cause future avoidance, this information may also guide the development of appeasement, enrichment and anti-anxiolytic compounds, and help explain the observed variation in post-traumatic-related behaviours (including post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD) among diverse terrestrial taxa, including humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)98-114
Number of pages17
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number1
Early online date26 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 01 Feb 2018


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