Whale Sense of Smell

Another common question we hear inside the NBWM walls is, ‘Do whales have a sense of smell?’ I wish that I had a good answer for those who ask the question and for our docents, so they could relay the proper information. Research has shown that the olfactory bulb is missing from the brains of odontocetes (toothed whales, dolphins, porpoises). However, Pierre-Henry Fontaine states in his book Whales and Seals: Biology and Ecology, that all cetaceans have maintained their Jacobson’s organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ. This ‘gives an animal the ability to “smell” its food once it’s in its mouth’.

So, what about the baleen whales? A new article just posted by the Alaska Dispatch talks about some of the research being done on this subject. Included in this story is the confirmation that bowhead whales have the olfactory bulb and that the genes for sensing smell are turned ‘on’.  Based on the fact that krill have an aroma, it seems likely that sense of smell is still useful to mysticetes. It will be interesting and fun to follow this type of research. That way we can continue to provide the most current information to our docents and our visitors.

In the meantime, if you are interested in the evolution of the sense of smell in whales, be here on Thursday, March 15, for Dr. Stephen Godfrey’s presentation, When Whales Walked the Earth: Fossil Whales and Olfactory Evolution. Reception is at 6:30, lecture is at 7:30. This lecture is part of the Man and Whales portion of the Combined Speaker Series. More information is available at our website.

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