A new study has found that African elephants have a large amount of olfactory receptor genes, making them some of the best ‘sniffers’ on the planet.
Researchers discovered that the elephants have a staggering number of olfactory genes – 2,000, to be exact. That’s twice as many as dogs, and five times as many as humans.
However, that doesn’t mean elephants are better smellers in every way. Scientists believe that it is not the number of genes that matter, but how they are used.
We don’t really know how the number of olfactory receptor genes relates to olfactory ability,” said study author Yoshihito Niimura, who is a researcher at The University of Tokyo’s department of applied biological chemistry. “For example, dogs are known for their keen sense of smell — but we actually already knew that their number of genes was much smaller than mice, who we don’t see with that same ability.”
Niimura went on to say that dogs may actually be better at picking out certain odors than elephants, despite having fewer genes.
“Dogs are very good at smelling particular odors,” he said, “like the smell of humans. They can detect those odor molecules even at very low concentrations.”
But elephants still can separate smells from one another, researchers have said. And they can do so much better than humans could ever dream of doing.
“If the wind is blowing in the correct direction, elephants can pick up the scent of humans … from over a kilometer [0.6 mile] away or detect and find the exact location of a tiny sliver of banana from over 50 meters [160 feet] away,” said Joyce Poole, co-founder of the conservation group ElephantVoices. “Experimental studies show that by sniffing urine-soaked soil, elephants can discriminate between and keep track of the location of family members.”
The researchers then explained how elephants could use their long trunks to distinguish places and people from one another. Since elephants are thought to have great memories and a high level of intelligence, odors could be a new way for the animals to gain knowledge.
The study was published Tuesday in Genome Research.