Neural correlates of behavioural olfactory sensitivity changes seasonally in European starlings
Faculty of Pharmaceutical, Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences . Biomedical Sciences
, p. e14337,1-e14337,7
University of Antwerp
Background Possibly due to the small size of the olfactory bulb (OB) as compared to rodents, it was generally believed that songbirds lack a well-developed sense of smell. This belief was recently revised by several studies showing that various bird species, including passerines, use olfaction in many respects of life. During courtship and nest building, male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) incorporate aromatic herbs that are rich in volatile compounds (e.g., milfoil, Achillea millefolium) into the nests and they use olfactory cues to identify these plants. Interestingly, European starlings show seasonal differences in their ability to respond to odour cues: odour sensitivity peaks during nest-building in the spring, but is almost non-existent during the non-breeding season. Methodology/Principal Findings This study used repeated in vivo Manganese-enhanced MRI to quantify for the first time possible seasonal changes in the anatomy and activity of the OB in starling brains. We demonstrated that the OB of the starling exhibits a functional seasonal plasticity of certain plant odour specificity and that the OB is only able to detect milfoil odour during the breeding season. Volumetric analysis showed that this seasonal change in activity is not linked to a change in OB volume. By subsequently experimentally elevating testosterone (T) in half of the males during the non-breeding season we showed that the OB volume was increased compared to controls. Conclusions/Significance By investigating the neural substrate of seasonal olfactory sensitivity changes we show that the starlings' OB loses its ability during the non-breeding season to detect a natural odour of a plant preferred as green nest material by male starlings. We found that testosterone, applied during the non-breeding season, does not restore the discriminatory ability of the OB but has an influence on its size.