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"Dogs are a hundred to millions of times more sensitive than humans in perceiving odors (Neuhaus 1953; Moulton and Marshall 1976; Marshall and Moulton 1981)." --Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (2003) by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani.

Caricature of human nose Illustration: Napoleon III nose caricatures from Schneegans's History of Grotesque Satire
Caricature of human nose
Illustration: Napoleon III nose caricatures from Schneegans's History of Grotesque Satire

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
the sense of smell; the detection of airborne molecules

Olfaction (also known as olfactics) refers to the sense of smell. This sense is mediated by specialized sensory cells of the nasal cavity of vertebrates, and, by analogy, sensory cells of the antennae of invertebrates. For air-breathing animals, the olfactory system detects volatile or, in the case of the accessory olfactory system, fluid-phase chemicals. For water-dwelling organisms, e.g., fishes or crustaceans, the chemicals are present in the surrounding aqueous medium. Olfaction, along with taste, is a form of chemoreception. The chemicals themselves which activate the olfactory system, generally at very low concentrations, are called odors.



As the Epicurean and atomistic Roman philosopher Lucretius (1st Century BCE) speculated, different odors are attributed to different shapes and sizes of odor molecules that stimulate the olfactory organ. A modern demonstration of that theory was the cloning of olfactory receptor proteins by Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel (who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004), and subsequent pairing of odor molecules to specific receptor proteins. Each odor receptor molecule recognizes only a particular molecular feature or class of odor molecules. Mammals have about a thousand genes expressing for odor reception. Of these genes, only a portion are functional odor receptors. Humans have far fewer active odor receptor genes than other primates and other mammals.

In mammals, each olfactory receptor neuron expresses only one functional odor receptor. Odor receptor nerve cells function like a key-lock system: If the airborne molecules of a certain chemical can fit into the lock, the nerve cell will respond. There are, at present, a number of competing theories regarding the mechanism of odor coding and perception. According to the shape theory, each receptor detects a feature of the odor molecule. Weak-shape theory, known as odotope theory, suggests that different receptors detect only small pieces of molecules, and these minimal inputs are combined to form a larger olfactory perception (similar to the way visual perception is built up of smaller, information-poor sensations, combined and refined to create a detailed overall perception). An alternative theory, the vibration theory proposed by Luca Turin, posits that odor receptors detect the frequencies of vibrations of odor molecules in the infrared range by electron tunnelling. However, the behavioral predictions of this theory have been called into question. As of yet, there is no theory that explains olfactory perception completely.

Olfaction in plants and animals

The tendrils of plants are especially sensitive to airborne volatile organic compounds. Parasites such as dodder make use of this in locating their preferred hosts and locking on to them. The emission of volatile compounds is detected when foliage is browsed by animals. Threatened plants are then able to take defensive chemical measures, such as moving tannin compounds to their foliage. (see Plant perception).

The importance and sensitivity of smell varies among different organisms; most mammals have a good sense of smell, whereas most birds do not, except the tubenoses (e.g., petrels and albatrosses), certain species of vultures and the kiwis. Among mammals, it is well-developed in the carnivores and ungulates, which must always be aware of each other, and in those that smell for their food, like moles. Having a strong sense of smell is referred to as macrosmatic.

Figures suggesting greater or lesser sensitivity in various species reflect experimental findings from the reactions of animals exposed to aromas in known extreme dilutions. These are, therefore, based on perceptions by these animals, rather than mere nasal function. That is, the brain's smell-recognizing centers must react to the stimulus detected, for the animal to show a response to the smell in question. It is estimated that dogs in general have an olfactory sense approximately a hundred thousand to a million times more acute than a human's. This does not mean they are overwhelmed by smells our noses can detect; rather, it means they can discern a molecular presence when it is in much greater dilution in the carrier, air. Scenthounds as a group can smell one- to ten-million times more acutely than a human, and Bloodhounds, which have the keenest sense of smell of any dogs, have noses ten- to one-hundred-million times more sensitive than a human's. They were bred for the specific purpose of tracking humans, and can detect a scent trail a few days old. The second-most-sensitive nose is possessed by the Basset Hound, which was bred to track and hunt rabbits and other small animals.

Bears, such as the Silvertip Grizzly found in parts of North America, have a sense of smell seven times stronger than that of the bloodhound, essential for locating food underground. Using their elongated claws, bears dig deep trenches in search of burrowing animals and nests as well as roots, bulbs, and insects. Bears can detect the scent of food from up to 18 miles away; because of their immense size, they often scavenge new kills, driving away the predators (including packs of wolves and human hunters) in the process.

The sense of smell is less-developed in the catarrhine primates (Catarrhini), and nonexistent in cetaceans, which compensate with a well-developed sense of tasteTemplate:Citation needed. In some prosimians, such as the Red-bellied Lemur, scent glands occur atop the head. In many species, olfaction is highly tuned to pheromones; a male silkworm moth, for example, can sense a single molecule of bombykol.

Fish too have a well-developed sense of smell, even though they inhabit an aquatic environment. Salmon utilize their sense of smell to identify and return to their home stream waters. Catfish use their sense of smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy. Many fishes use the sense of smell to identify mating partners or to alert to the presence of food.

Insects use primarily their antennae for olfaction. Sensory neurons in the antenna generate odor-specific electrical signals called spikes in response to odor. They process these signals from the sensory neurons in the antennal lobe followed by the mushroom bodies and lateral horn of the brain. The antennae have the sensory neurons in the sensilla and they have their axons terminating in the antennal lobes, where they synapse with other neurons there in semidelineated (with membrane boundaries) called glomeruli. These antennal lobes have two kinds of neurons, projection neurons (excitatory) and local neurons (inhibitory). The projection neurons send their axon terminals to mushroom body and lateral horn (both of which are part of the protocerebrum of the insects), and local neurons have no axons. Recordings from projection neurons show in some insects strong specialization and discrimination for the odors presented (especially for the projection neurons of the macroglomeruli, a specialized complex of glomeruli responsible for the pheromones detection). Processing beyond this level is not exactly known though some preliminary results are available.

Literature and olfaction

literature and olfaction

The sense of smell in works of literature has been noted early on in Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4, the work of British sexologist Havelock Ellis:

It is certain also that a great many neurasthenic people, and particularly those who are sexually neurasthenic, are peculiarly susceptible to olfactory influences. A number of eminent poets and novelists--especially, it would appear, in France--seem to be in this case. Baudelaire, of all great poets, has most persistently and most elaborately emphasized the imaginative and emotional significance of odor; the Fleurs du Mal and many of the Petits Poemes en Prose are, from this point of view, of great interest. There can be no doubt that in Baudelaire's own imaginative and emotional life the sense of smell played a highly important part; and that, in his own words, odor was to him what music is to others.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Olfaction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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