Moles smell in stereo

That cute little nose is more powerful than we thought. Photo: Mick Talbot/Flickr

That cute little nose is more powerful than we thought. Photo: Mick Talbot/Flickr

It seems a bit strange to associate the word “stereo” with your schnoz, but that’s exactly how blind moles use their noses with such finesse. Led by Vanderbilt University neurobiologist Kenneth Catania, a group of researchers found that each mole nostril works independently to better assess where the food is located. If the scent is stronger in the right nostril than the left, the mole knows that the food is to the right, and vice versa.

But since we can’t think like moles, a little experimentation was necessary. Catania’s team placed some of the furry diggers in an enclosure surrounded by 15 wells, one of which contained a tasty live earthworm. With both nostrils open and snuffing, the mole found the earthworm easily, but when scientists plugged up the left nostril the mole immediately started moving right, searching for the worm. The opposite happened when the right nostril was plugged. Researchers then put in tubes that crossed the nasal chambers and mixed the moles’ smell signals. When that happened, the moles were completely at a loss and often didn’t find the earthworm at all. Researchers then conducted the same experiments in a more life-like underground tunnel and still observed the same results.

The mole might not be the only mammal with stereo smelling. Some scientists posit that rats and even we poorly-smelling humans exhibit the ability, but perhaps it’s best to leave the navigation-by-nose to the adept little moles.


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