All’s Swell That Ends Smell!

By Greg Kornelis

Do you smell that?  Is it a loaf of pumpkin bread?  Are your cold weather clothes mildewy?  Are the fall leaves decomposing?  Or is the dust burning off the furnace?  Each season brings with it a palette of scents especially Autumn when the leaves change color, the temperature gets cooler, and many creatures seek their annual refuge in hibernation including black bears and grizzly bears.  Now is the time of year to wander the wilderness around you, observe nature’s primordial shift into low gear, and harvest her subtle offerings with your five senses.  Breathe-in through the nose.  Hold it.  And out through your mouth.  Ahh.

Did you smell that?  I bet you did.  Because your nose and olfactory receptors are more discerning than once thought.  Common wisdom on the subject has stated that the human nose was weak when it came to detecting subtleties in odor, only capable of detecting up to 10,000 scents.  But, in a study published in the journal Science, Leslie Vosshall and her colleagues from Rockefeller University posit that the human olfactory system can distinguish more than a TRILLION different scents!  According to the results of her scientifically tested estimate, we humans should be more than ready for the evolving odors of Autumn.

Remember that pumpkin bread?  (And who could forget it?)  Can you imagine the scent of it wafting from the oven?  Now, can you imagine being able to smell the eggs used to make the batter?  Or being capable of smelling the baking powder and vanilla in the loaf separately?  Could you even imagine being able to tell, just from the scent of it, who baked it?  If you could, you’d be as gifted a sniffer as a Conservation Canine!  The extraordinary abilities of a dog’s nose are no secret to man who has used his best friend to hunt animals, criminals, drugs, and for other uses throughout history.  But, in the field of Conservation their help is invaluable to scientists seeking to research rare and elusive species by detecting their scat.  (I’m glad the dogs are doing it and not ME!)  The collection of scat is important for determining population numbers, dietary issues, and stress factors in threatened and endangered species.  Dr. Sam Wasser of the University of Washington is the director of Conservation Canines – a conservation science program that trains dogs noses in the detection of scat by species and even by the individual who “baked” it.  Our four-legged friends have worked on projects studying caribou, elephants, grizzly bears, black bears, and even orca whales!

Remember… that loaf of pumpkin bread?  (I won’t let you forget it!)  Now, imagine smelling that sweet aroma wafting in from outside.  It’s so strong you can taste it; your mouth waters as you walk towards the odor.  It must be close by, but you keep walking and walking until you finally spot it through the window at the bakery.  Not next door, or down the street, but in the next town over!  If you walked 18 miles to find it, you might understand what a black bear might go through to track down its dinner.  Bears have some of the most powerful noses in the animal kingdom – 7 times greater than that of a dog!  It helps them find mates and protects them from humans and other bears, but it can also get them into trouble when they find and learn how to eat human food.  This occurs when food is left out and unattended or when waste isn’t properly disposed of.  Bears who become accustomed to eating human food can quickly become a danger to the public and are sometimes killed.  As the saying goes – “A fed bear is a dead bear.”  This generally isn’t a problem this time of year when black bears and grizzly bears retire to their dens for the winter, but if you’re a polar bear that’s returned from the ice, it’s a different story.  Polar bears have strong sniffers too – being able to detect seals up to 40 miles away and through 3 ft of snow.  After the pack-ice melts over the summer and fall, the polar bears return to dry land to wait until their hunting grounds freeze up again.  In this time it is imperative that the Arctic residents of Churchill, Manitoba be “Bear Aware” and not attract them into town.

A study of bears in Yosemite National Park shows how valuable techniques to keep bears out of people food are: by enforcing the use of bear resistant food containers and educating the public on food storage regulations, the park has been able to reduce bear consumption of human food from 35% to 13% (numbers not seen since 1915).  The importance of keeping bears out of human food doesn’t just go for National Parks, it goes for anyone living in Bear Country (even Polar Bear Country).  Because no one wants to be inadvertently responsible for the death of such a magnifi”scent” creature.  That would REALLY stink.


“YosemiteBears and Human Food: Study Reveals Changing Diets Over Past Century”

Scat detection dogs in wildlife research and management: application to grizzly and black bears in the Yellowhead Ecosystem, Alberta, Canada by Samuel K Wasser et al, Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 82, 2004

Western Wildlife Outreach (

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One comment

  1. NancyPerry says:

    A very informative and enjoyable article.

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