• Title Professor Emeritus of Biology; Adjunct Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Education PhD, University of Michigan, 1969
  • Phone 617-358-4392
  • Area of Interest sensory biology, chemical signals, receptor physiology, animal behavior, behavioral ecology, chemical ecology, biomimetic robotics
  • CV


Our labs in Boston and Woods Hole focus on three seemingly disparate research areas: chemical ecology of lobsters, navigation in sharks, and dispersal in larval reef fishes. These efforts are linked by a common theme: understanding how marine animals sense their environment, how they use this information to make decisions leading to food and mates while avoiding danger, and how these decisions play out in population dynamics and evolution. Application of this research can be found in public education via magazine articles (e.g., New Scientist, New York Times), popular books (The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson) and TV programs (most recently: Daily Planet). Our work has contributed to lobster management and impacts reef conservation and marine protected areas. The lobster and shark research on sensing has led to navigation algorithms for autonomous underwater vehicles (“robo-lobster”).

The lab’s Boston section studies lobsters and reef fishes involving graduate and undergraduate researchers in related areas: behavioral tests of senses involved in social interactions and the integration of multiple senses used in navigation. It includes a larval fish-rearing system and marine wet lab facilities to study lobster behavior. Undergraduate students use other animal models during a month-long course in sensory biology and subsequent independent research projects. The shark work is done in unique facilities in Woods Hole and collaborative research at the Mote Marine lab in Sarasota, FL. The reef fish work includes oceanography, population genetics, and sensory/behavioral analysis. The fieldwork is done at One Tree Island in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia involving an international team of scientists and in Belize in collaboration with Professor Pete Buston of our department at Boston University. All projects include student participation, from high school to PhD. The Sensory Biology course (BI 563) serves as a portal for undergraduate research involvement.

Selected Publications

  • Mouritsen H, Atema J, Kingsford MJ, Gerlach G (2013) Sun compass orientation helps coral reef fish larvae return to their natal reef. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66039.
  • Paris CB, Atema J, Irisson J-O, Kingsford M, Gerlach G, et al. (2013) Reef odor: A wake up call for navigation in reef fish larvae. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72808.
  • Atema J (2012) Aquatic odor dispersal fields: opportunities and limits of detection, communication and navigation. Chapter 1 in Bronmark C & Hansson L-A (eds) Chemical Ecology in Aquatic Systems. Oxford University Press: pp.1-18.
  • Gardiner J, Atema J (2010) The function of bilateral odor arrival time differences in olfactory orientation of sharks. Current Biology 20, 1187-1191.
  • Gerlach G, Atema J, Kingsford MJ, Black KP, Miller-Sims V (2007) Smelling home can prevent dispersal of reef fish larvae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 104, 858-863.
  • Johnson M, Atema J (2005) The olfactory pathway for individual recognition in the American Lobster, Homarus americanus. Journal of Experimental Biology 208, 2865-2872.
  • Grasso FW, Atema J (2002) Integration of flow and chemical sensing for guidance of autonomous marine robots in turbulent flows. Environmental Fluid Mechanics 2, 95-114.
  • Atema J (1995) Chemical signals in the marine environment: dispersal, detection, and temporal signal analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) 92, 62-66.

Courses Taught:

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