This isn’t to be sniffed at: according to new research by scientists at New York University, lemurs are able to smell fruit that’s hidden more than 15 metres away. “This is the first time research has demonstrated that primates can track a distant smell carried by the wind,” said anthropologist Elena Cunningham, the study’s lead author.
Many animals use their sense of smell to locate food, but little is known about whether primates can smell tasty treats that are some distance away, or if they rely on their eyesight and memory to find their next meal.
In this study, which was carried out at the Lemur Conservation Foundation in Florida, the researchers put ripe cantaloupe and fake cantaloupe into different containers and hid them in the undergrowth of the forest. The containers were located at different distances (between 4 and 15 metres) from a route that was habitually taken by a group of untrained ring-tailed lemurs. The containers were not visible from the path, so the animals would have to use their sense of smell to find the fruit.
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Smells are carried via ‘odour plumes’ which animals will navigate by sniffing the air at intervals to monitor the strength of the smell to see if they are getting closer to its source. Traditional belief is that primates are unable to track odour plumes.
When the wind blew the aroma of the cantaloupe towards the lemurs, they were able to find the fruit. The animals would sniff the air at one or more location as they moved towards the fruit. They were able to find the cantaloupe when it was located as far as 15 metres off the path. None of the lemurs found the fake cantaloupe.
“The lemurs were able to detect the smell of the cantaloupe among the complex smells of the forest and successfully navigate the odour plume to the fruit,” said Cunningham. “The results indicate that olfaction [smell] may be used to respond to cues from distant sources. The ability to sniff out distant foods may be a critical foraging skill for lemurs and other primates.”
As many primates, including lemurs, live in dense forest where visibility can be compromised due to trees and shrubs, it would make sense for them to be able to smell and locate distant fruit.
Reader Q&A: Why does smell affect taste?
Asked by: Jason Webb, Tennessee
Strictly speaking, taste only occurs in the mouth, and refers to one of the five basic sensations detected by the taste buds – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury or ‘umami’. Your nose, however, detects aroma, which can identify a much wider range of thousands of volatile compounds.
The sum of these two sensations is what we perceive as flavour, and so both play an important role in our overall experience of food.