The inaugural Perfumed Plume Awards were held last week in New York City. The awards were modelled after the Prix Jasmine and the UK Jasmine Awards and were set up to showcase and reward US fragrance journalists and their writing. There were six categories, including Scent Stories in mainstream media (newspapers and magazines), Scent Stories in digital media, Visualisation of Scent Stories, a Fragrance Book Award and Science of Scent Stories. Winners included Mark Behnke from Colognoisseur (Scent Stories, Digital), Mandy Aftel (Fragrance Book Award), Dana El Masri (Science of Scent Stories, for Michelyn Camen of CaFleureBon) and Jasia Julia Nielson (Visualisation of Scent Stories, for Michelyn Camen of CaFleureBon). Congratulations to all of the inaugural Perfumed Plume winners: what a fabulous bunch of writers!
It thrills me whenever I approach an animal that I don’t know as the first thing they do is waggle their nose in my direction, nostrils flaring, sniffing me out and trying to work out whether I’m friend or foe. I notice that my cat does this with inanimate objects too. If something new is added to the house, or if something has moved, or is where it shouldn’t be, the first thing she will do is sniff it. It must be her primary sense, or maybe the quickest and most reliable sense to help her ascertain whether said object is safe to be around or not.
We’ve all heard that in comparison to non-human animals, the human sense of smell is fairly poor. Even the magical, astutely trained and experienced noses of perfumers are pretty far down the scale of sniffing-ability in comparison to some of our animal friends. As someone interested in fragrance, I’ve had to develop my sense of smell consciously, and it’s taken some work. I know I still have a lot of training to do, even though I reckon in comparison to the average Joe, I smell pretty well! Women also have a keener sense of smell than men, apparently. This is backed up by my own (non-scientific) observations that I can tell Olly’s shirts sometimes need washing well before he’s even aware of a problem. Eeeeuuwww!
Now, if I was an African Elephant, I’m not sure I would be able to cope with Olly’s shirts at all. The African Elephant trumps all other mammals: not only does it have an extremely long proboscis, which is necessary for smelling out predators, amongst other things, but scientists have also found out that it has the largest number of olfactory receptor (OR) genes in a study of thirteen placental mammals. A whopping 1948 OR genes.
This research was undertaken in Japan by Yoshihito Niimura, Atsushi Matsui and Kazushige Touhara of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Applied Biological Chemistry, and their findings were published in the journal Genome Research. You can read more detailed information about the study here and here. You can also read the original article here.
So, where do we humans end up amongst a list of animals with superior schnozzes? How many OR genes do we have? A mere 396. Here is the list of the thirteen mammals that the researchers studied, in descending order of the number of OR genes each animal has:
Guinea Pig 796
You can see that primates fare quite badly in the OR gene stakes, and while we humans are near the bottom of the list, poor Orangutans would probably not make very good perfumers at all.
“…the sense of smell is critical to all mammals, and they use it for sniffing out food, avoiding predators, finding mates and locating their offspring.” (quote sourced from this article)
And why is an elephant’s sense of smell so incredible?
“The large repertoire of elephant (smell) genes might be attributed to elephants’ heavy reliance on scent in various contexts, including foraging, social communication, and reproduction.
African and Asian elephants possess a specific scent gland, called the temporal gland, behind each eye, and male elephants exude an oily secretion during annual mating, which is characterized by increased aggressiveness and elevated levels of testosterone .
Research has also shown that elephants have well-developed olfactory systems that include large olfactory bulbs and large olfactory areas in the brain.
And previous studies have revealed that African elephants can reportedly distinguish between two Kenyan ethnic groups—the Maasai, whose young men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants, and the Kamba, who are agricultural people that pose little threat to elephants, through smell.” (quote sourced from this article)
“…lifted our noses far from the ground where most smells originate, diluting scent molecules in the air.” (quote sourced from this article)
But where does my cat fit into all this? I don’t know. The study doesn’t mention how many OR genes cats have, sadly. But a brief bit of research on Wikipedia tells me the following about a cat’s sense of smell:
“A domestic cat’s sense of smell is about fourteen times as strong as a human’s. Cats have twice as many receptors in the olfactory epithelium (i.e. smell-sensitive cells in their noses) as people do, meaning that cats have a more acute sense of smell than humans. Cats also have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ. When a cat wrinkles its muzzle, lowers its chin, and lets its tongue hang a bit, it is opening the passage to the vomeronasal. This is called gaping, “sneering”, “snake mouth”, or “flehming”. Gaping is the equivalent of the Flehmen response in other animals, such as dogs, horses, and big cats.”
It’s all rather humbling really. I guess we’ll just have to console ourselves with the knowledge that non-human animals aren’t able to make perfume, yet. So we’ve got one up on them there. But if they could make perfume, and did, would we even be able to smell or appreciate the wonderful creations that they might produce with their superior sense of smell? I’ll leave you to ponder that question…
Bees are extraordinary animals. We rely on bees for the pollination of over 70% of our food crops in the global food supply, so they are essential for our existence. No pollination, no food. Simple. Colonies of bees have been diminishing worldwide in alarming rates in recent years, which should be of great concern to us all. The Varroa mite, along with certain crop fertilisers, insecticides and other human-made chemicals, are to blame. You can read more about the bee problem in this CNN article.
What does this have to do with perfume, or the sense of smell, you may ask? Well, it seems that this essential species isn’t just good at helping humans to stay alive by pollinating our food crops. They may also be able to help detect diseases such as certain cancers, tuberculosis, and diabetes, in their early stages, and therefore help save lives. A bee’s sense of smell, more than 100 times more powerful than ours, can detect changes in the odour of human breath that occur when these diseases are present.
Designer and artist Susana Soares has designed a series of devices for detecting these illnesses, in collaboration with Inscentinel UK, a biotechnology firm. They are simple, yet very beautiful glass objects that consist of two chambers: the main chamber that the bees are in and which the person breathes into, and a sub-chamber that the bees move towards if they detect any bio-markers of illness in the person’s breath. The bees have been trained, Pavlov-style, using sugar treats as rewards, to detect certain smells (pheremones) that only exist in the breath when these illnesses are present. You can read all about Susana Soares’ amazing devices here and also over at her website, where there is a more detailed explanation of the processes she used, her research, the collaborative process, and how the bees were trained.