For those of you who remember the pre-cellphone era: have you ever scanned a crowd to find someone? Perhaps a friend you were supposed to meet. Perhaps a child who wandered away from your group?
Can you remember how your eyes transitioned from a “wide area scan” to a narrow focus when you thought you’d found them? Well, it turns out that animals have this skill too. Not only can they focus their sight, they can also focus their nose.
To understand how this works, let’s begin with something we’re all familiar with - mucus - otherwise known as snot.
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Mucus  is produced by mucus membranes that “line the passageways inside our bodies that connect to the outside environment”. That includes the inside of the nose. Mucus is made up of “water, proteins including mucins (glycoproteins - proteins with attached carbohydrates), antibodies, and antiseptics, and salts.”
As odorant molecules enter the nose and are absorbed by the mucus, they come in contact with the sensory receptors lining the epithelium. But not all odorant molecules are absorbed the same - some are more readily absorbed that others.
Scientists at the University of Chicago  conducted experiments with rats to determine if the absorbant properties of odorant molecules affected how the rats sniffed. First, they trained “rats to detect a specific odor by rewarding them with a sugar pellet”.
Then they attached electrodes to the rats’ diaphram to measure the rate at which they were taking in air”. Finally, they “tested the animals with many mixtures of two chemicals to see if they could pick out those containing the target scent.”
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They “found that animals adjust their sense of smell through sniffing techniques that bring scents to receptors in different parts of the nose. The sniffing patterns changed according to what kind of substance the rats were attempting to detect.”
With low-absorbing odor molecules, the rats inhaled for a longer time until they learned to detect the odor. According to the researchers, “the air was moving through the nose at a slower rate and targeting those parts of the nasal epithelium that are further along in the pathway—those more likely to pick up the low-absorbent odors”.
But with high-absorbing odor molecules, the rats “inhaled more quickly because the parts of the nasal cavity that are sensitive to those smells are closer to the start of the nose’s air pathway.”
By adjusting how they sniffed, the rats were able to direct the odor molecules to the sensory receptors where they could best be detected.
In other words, they were able to focus their nose on the sweet spot so they could obtain the sweet treat.
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2014 Placerita Canyon Wild Flower Calendar: Looking for a unique and local gift? For $10, the Docents and Volunteers at Placerita Canyon Nature Center are offering a calendar filled with original photos of local wild flowers. Best of all, your purchase will help support their fine work at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. They will be available sometime after October 15 at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Gift Shop.
You have until October 1 to place an advance order for calendars. Please send an e-mail (using the subject line, Placerita Calendar) to Paul Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org . with the number of calendars you wish to buy. No money is requested up front. Paul will notify you when they are available at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Gift Shop and you can pick them up and pay for them at that time.