Top 10 Animals with the Best Sense of Smell

Animals have some extraordinary abilities that give them an edge over humans. One of their most fascinating traits is an excellent sense of smell that can help them sense danger and find the next meal.

This ability to sniff better than us is due to an abundance of smell receptors or sensors. Humans have 400 of these scene receptors, but some animals can have over a thousand of them, giving them a keener and more remarkable sense of smell.

Ready to learn which animals top that list? Let’s get started right away.

Top Animals with the Strongest Sense of Smell

1. Bears

These formidable beasts are renowned for their excellent sense of smell, which lets them locate prey from large distances. Their huge noses have 100x more olfactory receptors compared to the human nose. This enables them to immediately detect the fragrance of foods people prepare or take to the woods. And if they find the smell appetizing, expect them to visit the camp.

The silvertip grizzlies and polar bear species have exceptionally acute smelling abilities. They can locate a dead animal from 20 miles away easily. Grizzlies have been observed smelling a seal through 3 feet of ice, while people have seen black bears walk miles upon miles in a straight line to get to a food source.

In fact, grizzlies are better than any other animal out there. This is because their olfactory bulb is five times bigger than the average human’s. Now, add to this their ability to hunt and stalk things they want to eat, and we understand what makes this species of bear so terrifying.

Interestingly, it isn’t always about food. Male polar bears can trek for hundreds of miles in pursuit of the scent of a sexually receptive female.

2. Sharks

We thank our lucky stars that sharks don’t walk on land, or else we’d all be toast! These are perhaps the most dangerous predatory marine animal and rely on their acute sense of smell to hunt underwater. After all, their olfactory receptor occupies two-thirds of their brain, making smell detection an essential part of their existence.

Just looking at a shark can strike the fear of God in anyone, and if the shark is close enough for you to look at it, it’s already too late. They are frightful predators that can sense blood from miles away. This is a death sentence for injured animals and wounded humans that just happen to be in the waters. Their extraordinary abilities to smell have been tested in laboratory conditions, and research shows that sharks can detect a drop of blood in 100 liters of water.

The aroma is carried to the animal via water currents and the ocean’s movements. So, the rougher the water, the faster it gets to the sharks. They have nostrils on each side of the mouth and one at the base of the snout. And as water flows over the nostrils, they can quickly decipher the many smells that hit them and figure out where to head for the next meal.

3. Elephants

Studies show that elephants have the sharpest sense of smell, and they can detect more than just food. They can recognize the many different kinds of scents in their environment. They can even tell when the weather is about to change and detect underground water from miles away. The herd then uses their big feet to dig water holes and enjoy plenty of drinks and baths before moving on.

And they are so smart that they can remember where they found water the last time.
This ability is due to the over 2000 genes with only one job – to supercharge their sense of smell. There’s research that African elephants can distinguish the smallest variations between odors, which humans and many other animals are incapable of.

Their nostrils are found at the top of the trunk. They use these to sniff around, breathe and even collect water when necessary. And storing water doesn’t seem to affect the sense of smell in any way.

4. Kiwis

Experts have a difference of opinion about how well some birds can smell. But there is a general consensus about kiwi that it has an extraordinarily efficient nose for a bird. Their olfactory expertise is so good because they must find worms and insects on the ground. They are flightless birds and can’t go high up like other birds to track food, so they use their noses to do it on the surface of the earth instead.

The Kiwi’s nostrils are situated at the very tip of its beak, making it easier to find food by sniffing the ground. These rare flightless birds need all the help they can get because their vision is quite poor and smelling is the only sense they can rely on to get to the next meal.

The sensory holes in their beaks are so powerful that they can detect insects from under the ground. This is made possible by the largest olfactory bulbs and a large portion of the brain that’s dedicated to using them.

Get a closer look on these amazing birds and facts about them!

5. Wandering Albatross

This is a large and formidable sea bird with wings that span over 11 feet. You can see them flying over open seas, scouting for schools of fish and squids to feast on. Their sense of smell is so extraordinary that they can sniff out underwater prey while flying a few feet above, even if it is over 12 miles away. And they are such good hunters that they change their flying directions and fly zigzag to keep their target from seeing them.

Scientists have observed these birds glide effortlessly above sea level. And once they have spotted the next meal, they can either turn upwind or weave into the wind to get to it. These patterns suggest that the wandering albatrosses follow a trail of scent and not visual signals.

6. Snakes

Snakes have an excellent sense of smell that helps compensate for bad hearing and vision.
They do have a nose to smell, but their acute sense is made possible by a dedicated body part in their mouths. It’s called the Jacobson’s or vomeronasal organ. When a snake opens its mouth and flicks its tongue in the air, it takes in the aroma present in the surrounding environment to ‘taste’ the air.

The forked tongues have two prongs that attract odor molecules. The information is sent to the brain, rapidly processing this aroma and identifying the scent of prey so the snake can start tracking it. These lightning-sharp instincts make this a dangerous and deadly reptile.

7. Moths

Moths have thousands of smell receptors in their bristles and scales found on the feet, moustache-like extensions called palps and the antennae. Their job is to fine-tune the sniffing abilities of these insects, giving them the power to distinguish the many chemicals emitted from plants and other insects.

Moths are so good with their sense of smell because they have evolved two types of olfactory systems. First is a pheromone sensing structure that can identify pheromones from the opposite sex from miles away. And the second is a general odor-sensing system that can identify food and host plant odors on a waft of wind.

Scientists have observed male emperor moths detect a female of its kind from up to 8 km away at night – only by smelling her. And females can locate the perfect place to lay eggs by pursuing plant odors.

8. Dogs

It’s no secret that dogs have an acute sense of smell. They are routinely used to sniff out drugs, diseases, bed bugs and even natural disasters. And to top it off, their obviously curious nature makes them attracted to smells that are unfamiliar to them.

While all dogs are good puppers, but a species called bloodhound is the best at using their noses. Their powers to smell are 300 times better than ours, and they can even spot scents that are over two weeks old. Similarly, they can follow scent trails for 100 miles and sometimes even longer.

Then there are also the basset hounds with their droopy ears which they slide on the ground to push wafts of air towards their noses. They also use the folds in their necks to keep odors safe on them as they pursue a trail.

Find out some amazing facts about dogs and their sense of smell in this amazing video!

So, doggy noses are good for more than just giving boops. Police departments all over the world have dedicated canine units that train dogs to investigate crime scenes, locate explosives, find missing persons, find drugs and chase criminals.

In many cases, dogs have bodies and people just by smelling their clothes. They are also routinely used in rescue missions to find people buried under rubble after explosions and earthquakes, etc.

9. Turkey Vultures

While over 20 species of vultures are found all over the world, turkey vultures are perhaps the most common. Their thriving numbers can be attributed to their strong ability to smell compared to other birds.

These vultures are massive in size and quite hairless, making them very scary to look at. But their reputation as terrifying is further solidified because they’ve been to detect dead bodies from miles away and come looking for them.

It is interesting to note that the olfactory bulb in turkey vultures is 4x larger than other vulture species. But their brain is 5 times smaller. Moreover, these boomerang-winged birds have twice the number of Mitral cells that help detect the intensity of a smell and transmit this info to the brain.

They can even detect sulfurous chemicals and several types of diluted gasses several hundred feet in the air. They’ve been seen habitually circulating in the air to discover the origin of the odors and get visual confirmation of their next meal.

10. Eastern American Mole

This species of the mole is blind, so it is completely reliant on its sense of smell to find prey and determine where it is. But what really sets the Eastern American Mole apart from others is the fact that it can ‘smell in stereo.’ This unique ability means that each nostril can be used independently, allowing the mole to paint an olfactive picture of its environment. This is what gives them a highly sensitive sense of smell.

Scientists have observed the eastern American Mole move its nose back and forth several times and then quickly zero in on the food, no matter how well it’s hidden. They take a direct path to the food even if they are quite far away from it – a testament to their powerful abilities.


So which one of these animals were you expecting on the list?

We hope you learnt something new about animals and their amazing senses in this article. Do let us know about your observation in the comments.

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Nadine Oraby

My name is Nadine; I am a passionate writer and a pet lover. People usually call me by the nickname “Joy” because they think that I am a positive and joyful person who is a child at heart. My love for animals triggered me to create this blog. Articles are written by vets, pet experts, and me. Thanks for visiting. Your friend, Nadine!

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