Pheromonal communication in urodelan amphibians

Sarah K. Woodley, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University, 600 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, 15282, USA.
Nancy L. Staub, Biology Department, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA, 99203, USA.


Pheromonal communication is an ancient and pervasive sensory modality in urodelan amphibians. One family of salamander pheromones (the sodefrin precursor-like factor (SPF) family) originated 300 million years ago, at the origin of amphibians. Although salamanders are often thought of as relatively simple animals especially when compared to mammals, the pheromonal systems are varied and complex with nuanced effects on behavior. Here, we review the function and evolution of pheromonal signals involved in male-female reproductive interactions. After describing common themes of salamander pheromonal communication, we describe what is known about the rich diversity of pheromonal communication in each salamander family. Several pheromones have been described, ranging from simple, invariant molecules to complex, variable blends of pheromones. While some pheromones elicit overt behavioral responses, others have more nuanced effects. Pheromonal signals have diversified within salamander lineages and have experienced rapid evolution. Once receptors have been matched to pheromonal ligands, rapid advance can be made to better understand the olfactory detection and processing of salamander pheromones. In particular, a large number of salamander species deliver pheromones across the skin of females, perhaps reflecting a novel mode of pheromonal communication. At the end of our review, we list some of the many intriguing unanswered questions. We hope that this review will inspire a new generation of scientists to pursue work in this rewarding field.