Could humans be better than hounds at tracking trails, detecting drugs?

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Posted

May 12, 2017 20:05:06

That is the question that has been asked by one US researcher who has argued that in some circumstances, people could have better blowers.

Key points:

  • Humans have a more developed sense of smell than previously thought, said Dr John P McGann
  • Humans were thought to have proportionately small part in brain allocated to smell
  • But the findings have been met with scepticism by some smell experts

Dr John P McGann has published a piece in the journal Science which argues the belief that humans have a poor sense of smell compared to other mammals is an age-old myth.

Dr McGann, who is an Associate Professor in Psychology, specialises in how the brain understands sensory stimuli.

He has looked at the research throughout the decades and said there was an argument humans had a more developed sense of smell than previously thought.

“Humans with intact olfactory systems can detect virtually all volatile chemicals larger than an atom or two,” he wrote.

“When properly tested, the primate olfactory system can exert strong influences on behaviour, physiology, and emotions.

“Each person produces a distinct odour that reflects not only dietary and environmental factors but also interacts with the immune system’s markers to incorporate genetic information that permits the discrimination of kin from non-kin.

“Dogs may be better than humans at discriminating the urines on a fire hydrant and humans may be better than dogs at discriminating the odours of fine wine, but few such comparisons have actual experimental support.”

Dr McGann told the ABC different species had different abilities in the olfactory world.

“I don’t mean to say humans and dogs are the same, we’re clearly not,” he said.

“Dogs are pretty good at tracking and humans are not probably as good.

“Although if you push your nose on the ground you can follow a scent through a park.

“Humans are evolved to detect things like fruit much more than a dog is.”

Human smell ‘nothing’ compared to a dog

Humans were previously thought to have a proportionately small part in the brain allocated to smell, but Dr McGann argued when compared to rodents it was physically larger and more complex.

Dr McGann said he hoped the medical profession would pay more attention to the sense of smell.

“When you lose your sense of smell you’ve really lost something significant,” he said.

“One of my hopes is this will elevate the sense that smell is important to humans too and losing it is also a problem.”

The findings have been met with scepticism by some smell experts.

University of Melbourne researcher Sonja Needs trains sniffer dogs to detect pests in vineyards. She said the human sense of smell was “nothing” compared to a dog.

“Dogs have a remarkable nose, they have between 150 and 300 million olfactory neurons compared to a human’s 5 to 6 million olfactory neurons,” she said.

“They not only can take in odourants but they can separate them, they can store odourants, which is something that humans cannot do.”

She said dogs and most other mammals did not adapt to smell the way humans did.

“If they are sniffing an odourant they can continue to smell an odourant all day at the same concentrations, that’s why they’re remarkable tracking dogs.”

Humans can have sophisticated senses: sommelier

The argument that humans can smell better than thought carries weight with Lorenzo Ryan.

He has been working as a wine advisor in inner-west Sydney for just two years, but said in that short time his palate had become highly developed.

“You start to get familiar with regionalities,” he said.

“So I drink a lot of McLarenvale reds so you start to pick up similarities across the wines.”

At a tasting with the ABC (work was hard this week) he easily picked out black fruit tastes, vanilla, acidity, oak and even “liquorice and confectionary notes”.

“Potentially you could confuse it with Barossa, but you’d have to say South Australia, absolutely.”

Mr Ryan said while the flavours themselves were not necessarily ingredients, the compounds were similar.

“It’s almost like building up a portfolio of wines in your sense memory,” he said.

“Like knowing a person, you recognise the features of the wine.”

Pebble the pooche’s palate reigns supreme

He might only be a mutt but Claudette Rechtorik said she reckoned Pebbles the pooch had a pretty good palate.

“She can certainly find all those bits of food under the lounge and under the table and nooks and crannies,” she said.

“The most disgusting is her rotten bones she buries behind the lounge and then we start to smell it several days later.

“If we lose bits of food behind things she will be the first one to know about it.

“Obviously dogs can smell far more intensely than we can.”

Topics:

science-and-technology,

research,

dog,

human-interest,

united-states



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