Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sniff, sniff sniff! Your nose and nature.

(Is that food I smell?)

With the holiday season in full swing for many people, our houses are often filled with the wonderful smells of meals cooking and cookies baking. Even though we as humans are very visual creatures, our sense of smell can be very acute. Some researchers say that our sense of smell has a connection to our memories, and a specific smell can bring back very vivid memories. But what about in the animal world? And how can we use our sense of smell to explore the natural world? Well, let's find out.

Our sense of smell is carried out by two small odor detecting areas-made up of about 5-6 million cells- high up in our nasal passages. As a comparison, rabbits have an average of 100 million olfactory cell receptors and dogs average 220 million! Our nose is also tied into our sense of taste. While our tongue contains our taste buds, our noses add a great deal to our sense of taste. Have you ever noticed that when you have a cold and your nose is stuffed up that your sense of taste is not as keen? A friend of mine Paul has almost no sense of smell and as a result he has almost no sense of taste. Try it yourself. Hold your nose and eat something. What does it taste like? Then take another bite without your nose held and taste the difference.

A good deal of research has been done on human's sense of smell. Most scientists agree that children have a better sense of smell than adults and that women tend to have a better sense of smell then men. There is some debate on when our sense of smell declines, or if it even does. There is evidence to suggest that we do experience some olfactory decline as we get older. However, our state of mind and overall health does have an effect on our sense of smell as we grow older. And some research suggests that just like lifting weights, training your nose and relying on your sense of smell on purpose can increase nasal sensitivity.

So how can we use our noses more in nature, and how can we train them. Nature is full of amazing smells! Many of us have experienced the smell of a rainstorm, or fresh cut grass, and some even say it can smell like snow. Atmospheric condition do effect how smells travel through the air, but more on that some other time. Today we are going to cover two ways to use your nose in nature!

The first can be done indoors our outside. We are going to create a scent trail. Now I use this activity with kids outdoors during the day but also on night hikes if I can get out ahead and set the trail. Look through your house and find some things with both strong and subtile smells. I like to use things like soaps, herbs, sauces, coffee, tea, peanut butter, mouthwash, etc. You can use cotton balls for liquids and paper or cups for solids. Starting in one spot in your house, or just outside, place the starter scent maker there. A cotton ball soaked in lime juice for example. This is where you or your child will "catch the scent".

Then go ahead and hide other scent markers-the cotton balls or cups with the scent in or on them- around your house like a hidden trail. At the end put some reward like a snack. Then have your "bloodhound" take a smell of the first scent marker. Let them get a really good sniff. Then see if they can follow the scent trail through the house and find the end. If you want an added level of difficulty, you can also have the trail run outside and then back inside. Or have the trail go through the kitchen where other strong smells might throw your tracker off the trail. Another variation is to do this activity blindfolded! With the blindfold on, your scent seeker will have to rely on their sense of smell rather than looking for the scent markers as they sniff the air.

Another way you can develop you and your children's sense of smell is to literally follow your nose while out on a hike or disco hike. As you are out walking, either in nature or even in a store or mall, if you smell something, follow it to the source if you can. You never know what you might find. I have found wonderful trees, flowers, pizza shops, dead animals, and even water! Following a smell that reaches your nose can be a wonderful experience in the art of wandering. Since we usually follow what we see, following what we smell brings a whole new level of exploration into a simple walk. Also if you are taking you dog for a walk, see what they stop and smell. I have found skunk tracks, bobcat urine marks, and deer trails when I take a closer look at what my dogs are investigating.

Speaking of dogs, what mammal has the best sense of smell? Bloodhounds, and scenthounds in general, have noses 10-100 MILLION times more sensitive than us humans. But bloodhounds do not have the best noses in the mammal kingdom. That honor goes to the bears. The Grizzly Bear has a sense of smell that is 7 times stronger than a bloodhound! Researchers have found that grizzly bears can detect the scent of food up to 18 miles away!

Other animals in the world have equally amazing "noses". Salmon navigate back to the exact rivers they were born in while out in the ocean, and sharks can smell blood up to a half a mile away in the ocean. Turkey vultures are also known to have a great ability to smell dead things from great distances, and they are one of only a few bird species to have a sense of smell. My award for the coolest animal "nose" goes to the male Red-bellied Lemur (Eulemur rubriventer) which has scent glands on top of the head!

Here is a hint on how to help get a better smell of things. Have you ever noticed how a dog smells something it is interested in? They take several sniffs in and then one big exhale. Try it and see if it makes a difference for you. Also, when you are out exploring, from time to time stop and smell things. Take the time and explore how different things smell. Take a sniff of trees, leaves, mushrooms, dirt, bark, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Now be careful. Don't go just sticking your nose into just anything. Bring things slowly up to your nose, and take your first sniff from a good 6" away from your nose, and then get a closer smell. Have fun exploring with your snouts!

Nature Nugget:
Just a quick reminder, tomorrow, the 21st, is the Solstice. It is the day when we have the shortest amount of daylight all year. After the Solstice we will "gain" a few minutes of daylight each day. It was, and is, a time of the year when people celebrate the death and then the rebirth of the Sun. So enjoy the darkness and know that more light is on the way!

And now for something completely different!

Here is a partial list of the names of groups of animals. Just in case you have been wondering.

Donkey  - Herd
Bear       - Sleuth
Cat         - Clutter. A litter of kittens but a Clutter of cats.
Cattle     - Herd or Drove
Chicken - Brood or Clutch
Deer       - Herd
Dog        - Pack
Duck      - Brace or Herd
and finally...
Fox         - Skulk. Yes a skulk of Foxes.  

And now you know.

As always, please post comments or email me ideas for things to explore.

And if you know someone who might enjoy this blog, please pass it on! I have also started another blog for Experiential and Environmental Educators. If you are one of those, or want to be, or know someone who is, check it out:

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