Of all animals, elephants have best sense of smell, Japanese team says


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

The African elephant’s genome contains nearly 2,000 olfactory receptor genes, the most of any species covered by the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Genome Research.

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

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

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

ORs detect odors in the environment. The ability to smell allows creatures to find mates and food and avoid predators.

The study compared elephants’ olfactory receptor genes to those of 13 other animals, including horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, cows, rodents and chimpanzees. The study found that primates and people have very low numbers of OR genes. This could be “a result of our diminished reliance on smell as our visual acuity 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.