The first step in smelling is capture of odorant molecules from the surrounding fluid. We used lateral flagella of olfactory antennules of crabs Callinectes sapidus to study the physical process of odor capture by antennae bearing dense tufts of hair-like chemosensory sensilla (aesthetascs). Fluid flow around and through aesthetasc arrays on dynamically scaled models of lateral flagella of C. sapidus was measured by particle image velocimetry to determine how antennules sample the surrounding water when they flick. Models enabled separate evaluation of the effects of flicking speed, aesthetasc spacing, and antennule orientation. We found that crab antennules, like those of other malacostracan crustaceans, take a discrete water sample during each flick by having a rapid downstroke, during which water flows into the aesthetasc array, and a slow recovery stroke, when water is trapped in the array and odorants have time to diffuse to aesthetascs. However, unlike antennules of crustaceans with sparse aesthetasc arrays, crabs enhance sniffing via additional mechanisms: 1) Aesthetascs are flexible and splay as a result of the hydrodynamic drag during downstrokes, then clump together during return strokes; and 2) antennules flick with aesthetascs on the upstream side of the stalk during downstrokes, but are hidden downstream during return strokes. Aiming aesthetascs into ambient flow maintains sniffing. When gaps between aesthetascs are wide, changes in antennule speed are more effective at altering flow through the array than when gaps are narrow. Nonetheless, if crabs had fixed gap widths, their ability to take discrete samples of their odorant environment would be diminished.
L.D. Waldrop, M.A. Reidenbach, M.A.R. Koehl. 2015. Flexibility of crab chemosensory hairs enables flicking antennules to sniff. Biological Bulletin 229(2): 185-198. https://doi.org/10.1086/BBLv229n2p185
Marine Biological Laboratory