Friday, July 23, 2010

The sweet "boiled cabbage" smell of krill

Toothed whales like sperm whales and killer whales don't have the same olfactory organs that other mammals do, leading researchers to conclude that whales cannot smell. But a study of baleen bowhead whales has revealed that they do in fact possess the anatomical structures that would allow for a sense of smell. Other baleen whales might also be able to smell. The researchers only made the discovery, however, because the whales were killed as part of a hunt by members of the Inupiat tribe of Alaska. Scientists performed a dissection to locate the olfactory organs. To determine if other baleens can smell, scientists may have to wait for a dead one to wash ashore as most cetacean researchers stick to nonlethal methods but this would be an interesting next step. Interestingly, the results confirm the belief of Inupiat tribe members who had asserted that the whales could smell even though researchers told them otherwise.

This sense of smell would be useful to bowhead whales because it could help them locate swarms of krill, which according to a scientist quoted in the article smell like "boiled cabbage." So for whales the sense of smell might be both a blessing and a curse. It's amazing that we know so little about this order and yet some people feel perfectly confident that killing them and keeping them in captivity is no big deal.

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