, Volume 196, Issue 10, pp 685-700

Pheromones and signature mixtures: defining species-wide signals and variable cues for identity in both invertebrates and vertebrates

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Abstract

Pheromones have been found in species in almost every part of the animal kingdom, including mammals. Pheromones (a molecule or defined combination of molecules) are species-wide signals which elicit innate responses (though responses can be conditional on development as well as context, experience, and internal state). In contrast, signature mixtures, in invertebrates and vertebrates, are variable subsets of molecules of an animal’s chemical profile which are learnt by other animals, allowing them to distinguish individuals or colonies. All signature mixtures, and almost all pheromones, whatever the size of molecules, are detected by olfaction (as defined by receptor families and glomerular processing), in mammals by the main olfactory system or vomeronasal system or both. There is convergence on a glomerular organization of olfaction. The processing of all signature mixtures, and most pheromones, is combinatorial across a number of glomeruli, even for some sex pheromones which appear to have ‘labeled lines’. Narrowly specific pheromone receptors are found, but are not a prerequisite for a molecule to be a pheromone. A small minority of pheromones act directly on target tissues (allohormone pheromones) or are detected by non-glomerular chemoreceptors, such as taste. The proposed definitions for pheromone and signature mixture are based on the heuristic value of separating these kinds of chemical information. In contrast to a species-wide pheromone, there is no single signature mixture to find, as signature mixtures are a ‘receiver-side’ phenomenon and it is the differences in signature mixtures which allow animals to distinguish each other.