Smelling Intelligence

It’s a good time to sum up the little I know I know about smelling, having just seen this yearling, below, throw his nose up in the air and keep it there many long seconds as a dog and walker went by about 50 feet away: he was obviously gathering information through scent. The dog was leashed and showed no apparent interest in the coyote, though it’s hard sometimes to tell, so maybe there was a subtle visual exchange that I didn’t catch.

Nose up in the air and whiffing at the dog that just walked by

We humans can smell plenty of things: bacon cooking, apple pies in the oven, rotten eggs, coffee, fresh bread. We can smell flowers, freshly mown lawns, and some trees such as Eucalyptus. We can smell mildew, dirty clothes, smelly dogs, feces, urine. We can smell skunk, horse stables. Smoke, gases, and all kinds of pollution. And we can usually smell food gone bad. Sounds like a lot, but it’s unimpressive when compared to other animals. We gather information mostly through sight and language. Being able to smell odors and their meanings for the most part isn’t critical to human survival.

So, what specific scents might this coyote have been trying to pick up and decipher, besides that it was a dog? By watching a coyotes’ behaviors, including their reactions to dogs and other coyotes, and their reactions to items which have been in contact with animals or food, we can know something about how fine their smelling is.

Using scent to follow the trail of an intruder coyote

I’ve seen a coyote follow the scent of an intruder coyote who I saw in the area the day before. The sniffing coyote was gaping angrily as she did so: this wasn’t just any scent she was following. She knew exactly WHOSE scent it was and it was someone she disliked and even feared: it was a territorial challenger whose intrusions were heartbreakingly displacing this coyote. I followed the fascinating story and wrote a number of postings about it on this blog.

I’ve seen a coyote intently sniff her mate’s newly broken ankle, seemingly to find out about it, and then prod that injured coyote to move to safety and even try to soothe and comfort the hurt animal. Maybe the smell is based on an increase in heat and blood flow to the injured area, and/or to the coyote’s ability to detect pain, both of which a coyote can apparently sniff out. We know coyotes, as well as wolves and other predators, tend to seek out the most vulnerable prey animals by detecting wounds or other weaknesses, in addition to detecting fear and indecision. Hence, sniffing for them is very much a matter of gathering not only potential prey and food information, but also social information.

Coyotes can smell hormones, pheromones, and an array of body chemicals. We humans of course can’t detect these things at all through our noses, and must rely on vision — and even then, for distinguishing a male from a female animal, we must visually search for the difference which sometimes is not very obvious. Coyotes can decipher general age (youngster, oldster, in-between) and possibly social status, reproductive state, emotional state, aggressive state, and sickness, in addition to injuries. For example, hormones during mating season are attractants: I’ve watched males possessively and completely shadow their mates during breeding season presumably ready to deter another male who might show up. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. All of this olfactory information is important for social, territorial, defensive, reproductive and nutritional purposes: these are things a coyote would need to know for his and his family’s survival and prosperity.

Their sense of smell is not only expansive, it is also powerful such that they can locate prey far beneath the snow. Hunters have seen coyotes stop cold in a pasture and throw up their nose, testing the air, or turning away from a trail walked on by hunters — many hunters believe that coyotes can smell them from a mile away. Deer do the same, I’m told.

And of course they can pick up the scent-print of something no longer present, just like dogs, as precisely as who — in terms of the very specific individual animal, be it a coyote, dog, person or another wild animal — has been in a particular spot, how long they stayed, and how long ago they were there — along with a whole lot more about them. Yikes, it’s like time travel into the past!

Working dog trained to find coyote scat. The dogs have to learn to discriminate what *scat* generally is, which includes learning — through many trials — NOT to sniff out WHO put down the scat, or WHAT is in the scat, among other things. Of course, a dog can sniff ALL of these things, so they have to be taught discrimination.

Domestic dogs’ ability to smell has been studied much more thoroughly than coyotes’. It stands to reason that what a coyote can detect and decipher through its nose is on a par or even keener than that of dogs. Dogs, amazingly, can detect a wide array of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, TB, malaria, epilepsy and even coronavirus in humans: their noses have 300 million scent receptors compared to our 5 million: it appears that they are able to smell very small concentrations of just about anything. They can detect a 2% rise in human body temperature, which is what happens to humans right before an epileptic attack, and the dog therefore is able to alert that individual. They can also detect ovulation, dead bodies, and they are known to detect emotions such as fear, anxiety and even sadness in humans. They can sniff out a cow who is fertile, and even bedbugs. They can also detect bombs, computer gear, and drugs.

The canine physical olfactory organ is large as is the specialized brain area dedicated to identifying scents and interpreting the world through scent — humans lack both.

And we’ve all heard tales of dogs saving people from disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes and becoming edgy before such disasters. With their highly evolved olfactory senses, it would fit logic to assume dogs have the ability to sense changes in the atmosphere as well as impending doom on the wind — as would coyotes — whether from their heightened sense of smell or a special sixth sense. More on the power of dog noses here and here.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Smelling Intelligence — Coyote Yipps – Echoes in the Mist

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