Elephants possess 'superior' sense of smell, study finds

July 22, 2014
They have five times more olfactory receptors than humans, and the most of any animal characterized to date. Credit: Eric Green.

Elephants possess a sense of smell that is likely the strongest ever identified in a single species, according to a study by Japanese scientists out Tuesday.

The African elephant's genome contains the largest number of olfactory receptor (OR) genes—nearly 2,000—said the study in the journal Genome Research.

Olfactory receptors detect odors in the environment.

That means elephants' sniffers are five times more powerful than people's noses, twice that of dogs, and even stronger than the previous known record-holder in the animal kingdom: rats.

"Apparently, an elephant's nose is not only long but also superior," said lead study author Yoshihito Niimura of the University of Tokyo.

Just how these genes work is not well understood, but they likely helped elephants survive and navigate their environment over the ages.

The ability to smell allows creatures to find mates and food—and avoid predators.

The study compared elephant olfactory receptor genes to those of 13 other animals, including horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, cows, rodents and chimpanzees.

Primates and people actually had very low numbers of OR genes compared to other species, the study found.

This could be "a result of our diminished reliance on smell as our improved," Niimura said.

The research was funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Grants-in-Aid program.

Explore further: Scientists find distinctive patterns of olfactory receptors in fruit-eating bats

More information: Niimura Y, Matsui A, Touhara K. 2014. Extreme expansion of the olfactory receptor gene repertoire in African elephants and evolutionary dynamics of orthologous gene groups in 13 placental mammals. Genome Res doi: 10.1101/gr.169532.113

Related Stories

The first insects were not yet able to smell well

March 27, 2014

An insect's sense of smell is vital to its survival. Only if it can trace even tiny amounts of odor molecules is it is able to find food sources, communicate with conspecifics, or avoid enemies. According to scientists at ...

Recommended for you

Loss of a microRNA molecule boosts rice production

October 16, 2018

The wild rice consumed by our Neolithic ancestors was very different from the domesticated rice eaten today. Although it is unclear when humans first started farming rice, the oldest paddy fields—in the lower Yangzi River ...

Big Agriculture eyeing genetic tool for pest control

October 16, 2018

A controversial and unproven gene-editing technology touted as a silver bullet against malaria-bearing mosquitos could wind up being deployed first in commercial agriculture, according to experts and an NGO report published ...

A selfish gene makes mice into migrants

October 16, 2018

House mice carrying a specific selfish supergene move from one population to another much more frequently than their peers. This finding from a University of Zurich study shows for the first time that a gene of this type ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Scottingham
1 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2014
Of course they do! Just look at that schnoz!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.