Wolf, © Defenders of Wildlife

Keeping A Nose Out

For Wolf Awareness Week 2012, we’re sharing some of our favorite facts about wolves. Help us spread the word by sharing the image below on Facebook.

What’s the key to a wolf’s survival in the wild? The answer is right under its nose.

Wolves have a very acute sense of smell that they use to detect other animals more than a mile away. A huge part of a wolf’s brain is used to process smell, just as a huge part of our brain is used to process visual information. The olfactory centers in a wolf’s brain are about the size of a fist, while in humans they’re about the size of a pea.[1] There’s even evidence to suggest that wolves dream in smell!

Part of the reason wolves have such a finely tuned nose is that it helps them keep track of other wolves. Wolves have special scent glands near their tails that emit a smell unique to each wolf. They use the scent as their personal calling card, making it easier for wolves to identify their pack mates and any potential rival wolves from another pack. Dogs have the same scent glands since they’re descended from wolves. So next time you see dogs sniffing each other’s rear ends, you’ll know what they’re up to. That’s just their way of getting acquainted, similar to how we introduce ourselves by shaking hands, looking someone in the eye and saying our names to improve the chances of recognizing someone the next time we see them.

A female wolf follows her nose through the Wood River Valley of central Idaho.

A wolf’s strong sense of smell can also be used as a nonlethal deterrent–a way to keep wolves away from livestock without placing them in danger. Wolves can pick up the scent of a human upwind, and that is often enough to keep wolves away. Our field technicians on the Wood River Wolf Project use this to their advantage by camping upwind of a band of sheep, so any wolf that approaches will know a person is there too.

Researchers have started to experiment with using scent as a deterrent in other ways as well. In theory, the scat or urine of other animals, or even other wolves, can be used to create a “bio-fence” to keep wolves away by marking a territory with an unfamiliar scent. However, as with many deterrents, wolves can become habituated to the smell unless it is coupled with negative reinforcement. The smell of a human, or another wolf, will only discourage wolves if they perceive the source as a threat to their safety.

That’s why Defenders is working with ranchers and herders to make sure they’re implementing nonlethal deterrents effectively and remaining vigilant. A wolf’s nose can detect danger, but ultimately it’s boots on the ground that prevent conflict.

Come back on Wednesday for another Wolf Awareness Week fact, and more on how we work with ranchers to protect them.


[1] Wolves and Humans exhibit, International Wolf Center (Ely, Minnesota).

One Response to “Keeping A Nose Out”

  1. LaNette McDermott

    Thank you John for the information. Great to have the facts for us all in order to have a better understanding as well as informing us as to how ranchers and farmers live with the wolves. Music to my heart.
    I look forward to future articles.
    Respectfully,
    LaNette McDermott
    Wood River Valley

    Reply

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