A Bear’s Incredible Sense of Smell




I live in a misty, moss-draped temperate rainforest, filled with an unfathomable amount of complex scents, swirling and layering upon one another like the sounds of a symphony.  Unfortunately, the often subtle world of fragrance seems to be ignored, for the most part, by us humans, unless of course you’re into aromatherapy, a sommelier (wine sniffer) or you’ve lived in the forest under a bark, lean-to for 6 months, but for bears, the sense of smell is how they truly see the world.

A grizzly bear can smell 2100 times better than a human, making them the world’s, ultimate, sniffing machine.  A bear’s olfactory bulb, which manages the sense of smell, is 5 X larger than ours, even though its brain is 1/3 of the size, its long snout is lined with tens of millions of odor-sensitive nerves and its nose contains hundreds of tiny muscles that can be manipulated with the same dexterity as our fingers.  Smelling as a bear does, might be like touching and feeling something at a distance.

Bears can detect a carcass of an animal, in perfect conditions, up to 20 miles away.  Polar bears have followed seals for up to 40 miles.  Think how easily a bear can smell your fear…your uneasiness …even your busy, babbling mind.  This ability makes them a very intimidating, 800 pound, scavenging, bully of the forest, but we can learn how to understand their language, so let’s start with the language of their noses.


Imagine yourself with the nose of a grizzly bear…


What smells do you detect right now that were once invisible to your awareness?

Try catching the scent of a distant object you see.

Are you wiggling your nose? 


To increase the nose’s ability to detect scents, it is far better to take short, shallow sniffs, like your dog or cat does when it’s investigating a new scent, than with the classic, human style of one gigantic, deep sniff, the kind we do when fresh bread has just been taken out of the oven or our nose is pressed into the center of a rose.

When I pretend to be a bear, my sensory world is transformed.  Aromas are not only smelled, but it’s like they can be seen, with unique colors and rates of vibration.  The mingling of scents become a 3-dimensional map of fragrance and when one scent stands out brighter than all the others, it becomes like a beacon of a poking, tangy-smelling, whispering light, no matter the size or distance and you can’t help but notice it.

I think of the new grizzly bear I spooked the other day, when he caught my scent.  He obviously didn’t have my odor on his “safe list” tucked away in his memory, which I believe bears have the ability to do.  How blatantly different the human smell must crash upon the scene, when we step into the wilderness world of the bear nose.

I washed my hair that morning with my usual Hawaiian, floral-scented shampoo, Dr. Bronner’s 18-in1 lavender soap foamed on my body, I applied a hydrating, carrot lotion to my face and hands, as my woodstove is drying my skin to the consistency of a raison these days, my clothes always go through the final rinse with a delicate, scent of fabric softener, my hat, still smoky from a recent campfire, my breath smells of a tree-picked apple, there’s boat gas residue on my fingertips and rotten salmon on my right shoe. Worse of all, that grizz definitely smelled the bright, yellow scent of my excitement.  With all these scents a bear must smell, it’s a miracle we ever get to see them so close.  

Perhaps it’s time we develop our sense of smell to its full capacity.  Considering the amount of photos of food being shared around the world and our addiction to it, not forgetting that taste is directly linked with smell, in fact, we smell more than we ever taste, shouldn’t we bring our attention to this underappreciated, sense and regain the power it was designed to give us?  There is new science proving we can smell like a dog and dogs are no shabby sniffers.  Ok, dogs don’t have the superhero abilities of bears, but dogs do smell 100 times better than we do right now.

I’ve experienced super heightened senses while living off the land for 18  months, an ability that partly drove me back to the wilderness until I could control it better.  I can still smell different plants on a trail in the dark, can detect the spicy, pungent odor of a deer marking a twig and can still remember the baby-skin-soft, tickling-sweet smell of my first owl feather.  The sense of smell is like poetry.  And here’s a new poetic bit of vocabulary I just learned… Petricho: the aroma when the earth is wet after a rain.  (I really don’t know how this is related, but I wanted to use it in a sentence.)  Having a heightened sense of smell adds a texture and richness to our lives hard to describe.

It’s time to investigate our true abilities with our sense of smell…







  1. Great article on smell, Nikki!

    • Thanks Gay. Wonderful to hear from you! Summer seems so long away till I see you guys. I’m sending out a little email this week to fill you all in on my new plans for the summer. Big hugs to you both

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