Smell: Primary

Keep your eyes and ears open. Now there’s an expression we’ve all heard before, that illustrates how much we humans depend upon our vision and our hearing. But there’s another sense that we rely upon much more than we realize. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont.

“Certainly for much of the animal kingdom, from insects or worms even on up through most mammals, the sense of smell is primary.”

Stuart Firestein of Columbia University is one of the country’s leading experts on the sense of smell.

“The big cats scent mark their trees by clawing on them. Dogs, as we all know, like to scent mark fire hydrants and things of that nature. And this is true for many animals, that they scent mark their territory and of course give off aggressive chemical signals to keep other animals out of that area. Or attractive chemical signals to bring females in the area that you’re maintaining as the dominant male, if you can manage that.”

Firestein says that, across the animal kingdom, the most powerful of all the senses is smell.

“It mediates the major behavior patterns — food getting, territoriality, sex, breeding. Is there anything else really? That about covers it, it seems to me. And in every one of those cases, in some way or another, the sensory input of smell is extremely important to these animals and indeed they devote a tremendous amount of brain area to analyzing the sense of smell and understanding their environment in odor terms.”

Even though we think that our human sense of smell is not very well developed, according to Firestein, we actually have more genes that control smell than we have for anything other sense, including vision. To hear some of your favorite Pulse of the Planet programs again online, please visit nationalgeographic.com. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation.

Smell: Primary

Throughout the animal kingdom, smell is the most important of all the senses, playing a critical role in eating, breeding and territorial behavior.
Air Date:05/22/2000
Scientist:
Transcript:

Keep your eyes and ears open. Now there's an expression we've all heard before, that illustrates how much we humans depend upon our vision and our hearing. But there's another sense that we rely upon much more than we realize. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont.

"Certainly for much of the animal kingdom, from insects or worms even on up through most mammals, the sense of smell is primary."

Stuart Firestein of Columbia University is one of the country's leading experts on the sense of smell.

"The big cats scent mark their trees by clawing on them. Dogs, as we all know, like to scent mark fire hydrants and things of that nature. And this is true for many animals, that they scent mark their territory and of course give off aggressive chemical signals to keep other animals out of that area. Or attractive chemical signals to bring females in the area that you're maintaining as the dominant male, if you can manage that."

Firestein says that, across the animal kingdom, the most powerful of all the senses is smell.

"It mediates the major behavior patterns -- food getting, territoriality, sex, breeding. Is there anything else really? That about covers it, it seems to me. And in every one of those cases, in some way or another, the sensory input of smell is extremely important to these animals and indeed they devote a tremendous amount of brain area to analyzing the sense of smell and understanding their environment in odor terms."

Even though we think that our human sense of smell is not very well developed, according to Firestein, we actually have more genes that control smell than we have for anything other sense, including vision. To hear some of your favorite Pulse of the Planet programs again online, please visit nationalgeographic.com. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation.