What animal has the best sense of smell in the world?

Everyone knows that we humans don't have a particularly strong sense of smell, but just how far behind are we? Our dogs also don't have the most powerful noses, so what animal has the best sense of smell in the world?

Many animals smell better than we do, but which animal has the best nose?
Many animals smell better than we do, but which animal has the best nose?  © Unsplash/Braydon Anderson

In the world of the animal kingdom, sense of smell often rules.

Unlike humans, many creatures out there rely on their snouts, muzzles, and nostrils for survival in a very literal sense.

But even among those beasts with a much better sniffer, there are some significant differences.

Great white shark carcass causes a stir
Animals Great white shark carcass causes a stir

So the question at hand is obvious!

Which animal holds the world record for strongest sense of smell? What animal has the best sense of smell in the world?

Let's find out!

Which animal has the best sense of smell?

Japanese scientists, from the University of Tokyo, have discovered that African elephants have the strongest sense of smell of any animal in the world. According to the research, elephant noses are "superior" to any other animal, allowing them to find family members, search out food, and even detect predators from many miles away.

Dr Yoshihito Niimura, who led the study at the University of Tokyo, noted in a press release (translated from Japanese) that African elephants have such an impressive sense of smell that they "can distinguish two ethnic groups living in Kenya, Maasai and Kamba, by smell".

"Maasai have a custom of hunting African elephants with spears, whereas Kamba is an agricultural people, so African elephants try to avoid Maasai."

Interestingly, the research also looked into how a sense of smell develops evolutionarily over time. It seems that elephants have developed an evolutionary need for increased smell due to their environment, while humans gradually evolved towards improved sight.

The fact that elephants can smell so well does not depend on the length of an elephant's trunk, though. An elephant's olfactory mucosa does not line its trunk, but instead sits up near the brain.

The European eel has the best smell of any water dwelling animals

The best sense of smell for any water-based animal possibly goes to the European eel, which reportedly has one of the strongest olfactory systems in the world. These snake-like animals live underwater, using their noses to guide their way through murky and often very dark water.

Generally growing to be around 30–60 inches in length, your standard European Eel is far more impressive than you'd otherwise think. These creatures use their sense of smell to spatially orient themselves via the scents of plants, animals, rocks, and sand in the water. They have such an insane sense of smell that they can track down their prey from multiple miles away.

The way that it does this is, in itself, quite interesting. A European eel will swim in a zigzag pattern towards the scent, tracing its prey's path through the water. When it loses a scent, it will change direction by around 45 degrees and will continue until it catches it again.

European eels don't have noses, but instead hold their olfactory cells within their pharynx. With such a remarkable combination of hunting and spatial awareness through smell, they are extraordinary animals.

What are olfactory receptors? Noses are filled with olfactory receptors, small proteins that bind odor molecules and transmit data to an individual's or an animal's brain.

European eels have possibly the best sense of smell in the world.
European eels have possibly the best sense of smell in the world.  © Unsplash/Wouter Naert

Top 5 animals with the best sense of smell

There are many animals out there with extraordinary noses. With more than 300 million olfactory receptors, even dogs have more than fifty times a human's sense of smell (we have about six million). For comparison, dogs don't even fit into the top five best sniffers in the world – that's how powerful the noses of some of these animals are!

So what are the top five animals with the best sense of smell (not including elephants, of course)?

Snakes: To compensate for their poor eyesight and sense, snakes need to have a strong sense of smell. Similarly to European Eels, snakes don't smell exclusively through their nose, but instead kind-of taste the air with their tongues.

Kiwis: These fascinating flightless birds originate in New Zealand and have a very particular look. They have terrible eyesight and, as a result, mostly navigate using their sense of smell. That's why kiwis have one of the biggest olfactory bulbs among birds.

Great white sharks: There's a reason why you should never swim when you are bleeding, especially in waters that may be inhabited by great white sharks. They can detect even small amounts of blood in a vast quantity of water and will circle in to catch their prey.

Grizzly bear: Grizzlies have an insane number of smell receptors and can sniff their food from many miles away. Dangerously, they also have rather sophisticated hearing and quite good eyesight as well.

Rats: At night, the rats come out to play. They have terrible eyesight so it is only natural that they won't come out in the light but, instead, in the dark of night. Certain species of rats have some of the best noses in the world.

There are many impressively-nosed animals in the world, and this list is by no means complete. Keep an eye out, and appreciate your ability to do so, they probably don't have particularly good eyesight, let's be real!

Good noses are powerful tools

Animals use their noses for far more than we do. While human noses are mainly used to detect pleasurable odors and in the tasting process, other species use their sense of smell as a powerful tool for survival. For many animals, smell helps to locate incoming predators, determine safe food, recognize family members, and operate a variety of functions which keep them alive.

Human noses are so weak that you can be almost guaranteed that your pet can smell a variety of things that simply waft by you without leaving a trace. There's an entire world out there that we're not even aware of, wouldn't it be incredible if we got a whiff?

Cover photo: Unsplash/Braydon Anderson

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