To us, this is just a field. But to this dog, it’s a portal through time. She can peer into the past, what happened an hour, even a week ago, thanks to this exquisite olfactory device. Zinka is a search and rescue dog, a champion sniffer. Today she’s working with researchers from the Univerity of California, Berkeley. She’s wearing a GPS device and other sensors so they can figure out how she tracks smells so well… like from this hiker, because tracking smells isn’t like following a dotted line on a map. Odors don’t spread out evenly. They’re all swirly, twisted around by air currents. But Zinka’s nose can make sense of that.
How does your dog’s nose know so much? This Deep Look episode from KQED and PBS Digital Studios takes a closer look at their remarkable superpower. It’s made possible thanks to the ‘side-flaps’ of their noses, divided nasal passages, a special olfactory recess, 300 million olfactory receptors and “nerves leading to a part of the brain devoted entirely to interpreting its signals.”
Research like this not only informs us about how dog noses work but can power new technologies and help us better understand fluid dynamics. From Deep Look:
“When you see a plume of smoke coming out of a smokestack or what milk looks like when you pour it into your coffee, it has that very complex structure to it,” [Professor John] Crimaldi said. “They’re actually all using the same physics.”
One of Crimaldi’s studies involves using lasers to measure how a fluorescent dye spreads out in a large tank of water. Researchers use the data of how the dye dissipates unevenly over time to create computer models that replicate the motion of the chemicals swirling around.
Then the researchers run different computer programs that inspect the model for the source of the plume. Crimaldi wants to know which algorithms do a better job of locating the source of the odor within the model.
“Ultimately, we want to build a mechanistic model so that we can actually understand how the brain functions when searching for an odor source,” he said. “We want to find the optimal strategies that you might use to program a robot to do similar tasks like search and rescue.”
Related reading from NOVA: Dogs’ Dazzling Sense of Smell.
Then watch these related smart videos: How To Capture A Scent, an easy science experiment and how many smells can you identify?