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December 18, 2006

You Can Track A Scent Like A Dog, As Long As You Don't Mind Sticking Your Snoot In The Dirt

Well, not as well as a dog, but students were able to track the "light" scent of chocolate along ten meters.

Okay, that's not very far. But they could do it, and got better at it with practice.

Just like canines, many humans are able to sniff the ground, pick up a faint scent and successfully track it.

The surprising discovery, made by researchers in the United States who are trying to figure out the mystery of why mammals have two nostrils, suggests that people have a much more highly developed sense of smell than is commonly thought.

The researchers found that about two out of three people given the kind of task that would be the joy of any hound managed to find and follow a scent trail spread on a grass field -- a very pleasing scent to humans: a faint whiff of chocolate spread along 10 metres.

A paper published in the January issue of Nature Neuroscience also found that humans get better with sniffing out a scent trail over time, which suggests that with lots of practice people may be capable of the kind of tracking previously thought to be the exclusive ability of other animals.

The researchers were the first to admit that having a group of 32 people, comprised mostly of university students, crawl across a field with their noses to the ground carried a whiff of the absurd.

"It seems a little wacky at first glance," said Rehan Khan, a senior scientist at the University of California Berkeley neuroscience department who worked on the project. "It's a very strange task for a human, but it's the most natural task in the world for most mammals."

He said the tracking test was part of an effort to figure out why mammals have two nostrils, something that isn't as readily apparent as the obvious utility of having two eyes, which give depth perception, and two ears, which allow for a more accurate sense of where a sound is coming from.

"All mammals have two nostrils, so we were interested in why is this? Nobody really had an answer to this question," Mr. Khan said.

People rely most heavily on their sense of sight, leading them to under-appreciate their olfactory abilities. "Because we do have this domination in our perception of vision, we don't think of ourselves as particularly good at smelling things compared to a dog, but that doesn't mean that we're terrible," Mr. Khan said.

They found (science!) that two notrils were better than one for this task.

Of course, humans can never beat dogs at this game. The scent-pathways of dogs' noses, if drawn out straight on a line, would stretch to the planet Saturn and back three times.*

* Well, I may have made that up. Still, I'm sure it's pretty far and shit.

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posted by Ace at 01:52 PM

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