Stripes disrupt odour attractiveness to biting horseflies: Battle between ammonia, CO2, and colour pattern for dominance in the sensory systems of host-seeking tabanids

Miklós Blahó, Ádám Egri, Dénes Száz, György Kriska, Susanne Åkesson, Gábor Horváth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

26 Citations (Scopus)


As with mosquitoes, female tabanid flies search for mammalian hosts by visual and olfactory cues, because they require a blood meal before being able to produce and lay eggs. Polarotactic tabanid flies find striped or spotted patterns with intensity and/or polarisation modulation visually less attractive than homogeneous white, brown or black targets. Thus, this reduced optical attractiveness to tabanids can be one of the functions of striped or spotty coat patterns in ungulates. Ungulates emit CO2 via their breath, while ammonia originates from their decaying urine. As host-seeking female tabanids are strongly attracted to CO2 and ammonia, the question arises whether the poor visual attractiveness of stripes and spots to tabanids is or is not overcome by olfactory attractiveness. To answer this question we performed two field experiments in which the attractiveness to tabanid flies of homogeneous white, black and black-and-white striped three-dimensional targets (spheres and cylinders) and horse models provided with CO2 and ammonia was studied. Since tabanids are positively polarotactic, i.e. attracted to strongly and linearly polarised light, we measured the reflection-polarisation patterns of the test surfaces and demonstrated that these patterns were practically the same as those of real horses and zebras. We show here that striped targets are significantly less attractive to host-seeking female tabanids than homogeneous white or black targets, even when they emit tabanid-luring CO2 and ammonia. Although CO2 and ammonia increased the number of attracted tabanids, these chemicals did not overcome the weak visual attractiveness of stripes to host-seeking female tabanids. This result demonstrates the visual protection of striped coat patterns against attacks from blood-sucking dipterans, such as horseflies, known to transmit lethal diseases to ungulates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-174
Number of pages7
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2 2013


  • Ammonia
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Horsefly
  • Olfactory cues
  • Parasite protection
  • Polarisation vision
  • Polarotaxis
  • Striped pattern
  • Tabanid fly
  • Visual ecology
  • Zebra

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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