BSc Biology

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Chemical Communication in Animals (L)

Course unit fact file
Unit code BIOL31461
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


You will study the mechanisms, functions and consequences of chemical communication in a range of animals. Topics include: chemical signals and their receptors; smell vs taste; how the brain forms a molecular "image" of an odour, a taste or a pheromone; sex, aggregation and social pheromones; and the role of chemical communication within and between species.


To study the mechanisms, functions and consequences of smell, taste and pheromones in a range of animals. Students will gain a full understanding of this fundamental mode of communication, with an emphasis on a critical understanding of the primary research literature.

Learning outcomes

  • To understand the key concepts underlying the detection and processing of chemical signals in a range of biological systems - from receptor cell biology, through the functioning of insect societies to the role of chemical communication in humans
  • To be able to critically evaluate published research
  • To develop the ability to discuss and analyse research in both oral and written form


Peripheral processing: Processes that take place external to and at the cell membrane and within the receptor neuron. Modes of peripheral neuron signalling. Receptor-ligand relations, the number of receptor molecule types per receptor neutron, and the phylogeny of receptor genes. Smell vs Taste. The evolution of the chemical senses and the qualitative differences in olfaction between vertebrates and invertebrates.

Central Processing: How does the brain form a molecular "image" of an odour, a taste or a pheromone? Examples will be taken from a range of organisms including Drosophila and rodents.

Pheromones and olfaction: Sex, aggregation and social pheromones in invertebrate and vertebrate systems. Emphasis will be put on the biological context in which these pheromones function, and the way in which they may have evolved. There are separate lectures on moths, flies, fish, birds, and two lectures on mammals (including humans).

Chemical ecology: The role of chemical communication within and between species. Striking examples of inter-specific communication will be discussed, as will the effect of chemical communication on phenotypic plasticity in a number of species. The effect of climate change on chemical communication and its consequences for biodiversity are also dealt with.

The unit combines two forms of teaching; traditional lectures, and a virtual seminar in which students have to contribute via Blackboard to a discussion of a research paper. Students will also be required to write a short essay on pheromones in reptiles. This essay will be no more than 2 pages of text excluding the title page and list of references (see final year handbook for format requirements, these are the same as for the Literature Review).


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Writing and researching essays and summarising the research
Extra reading for the course and the on-line seminar, and researching the short essay
Written communication
a) On-line seminar in which students have to make 2 x 100 word contributions discussing an article b) short essay

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 4%
Written exam 70%
Written assignment (inc essay) 26%

Written examination:

1.5 hour examination (70% – answer one of four questions)

Short essay (2 pages) on pheromones in reptiles to be handed in during the course (26%)

Online discussion of two contrasting research papers (4%)

Feedback methods

a) Detailed feedback will be provided on the short essay that students write during the course.

b) Each student will be provided with detailed written feedback on their exam performance.

c) A drop-in session will enable students to get detailed verbal feedback on their exam performance.

Recommended reading

Cobb, M, Smell: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press (2020) (Essential)


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 1.5
Lectures 18
Independent study hours
Independent study 80.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Matthew Cobb Unit coordinator

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