The Elephant’s Superb Nose
In the world of noses, the elephant’s trunk clearly stands out for its size, flexibility, strength and slightly creepy gripping ability.
Go ahead, try to pluck a leaf with your nostrils and see how you fare. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the elephant’s sense of smell is also outstanding.
Past studies have shown that elephants have more scent receptors than any other mammal. And in other experiments, researchers following up reports that elephants in Angola were avoiding minefields found that they could detect TNT.
Another report concluded that elephants could use scent clues to tell the difference between two Kenyan tribes, the Maasai, who traditionally speared them, and the Kamba, who did not. The elephants apparently used these clues to help them avoid the Maasai.
The latest bit of research adds to the evidence by showing how they use their great sense of smellin choosing food. Elephants often must find vegetation and water at a distance, and they also distinguish between fairly similar plants once they reach a clump of likely vegetation.
It seemed that they probably used their sense of smell, but Melissa Schmitt, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and her colleagues wanted to see how good they were.
So she tested them at close range, using two buckets with two different hidden foods. They easily picked out the bucket with leaves from plants they enjoyed, say wild pear, and avoided ones they didn’t like, wild olive, for instance.
To test the elephants’ odor detection at longer range, the researchers built an elephant-sized version of a classic laboratory Y maze of the sort used to test lab mice.
Read the whole story here.
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