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How Do Bats Use Their Sense of Smell?

Bat Skull

Our surrounding environment is one filled with the scents and smells of nearly everything with which we come into contact. Cookies baking in the oven, fresh-cut hair in the barbershop, your dog after having come in from the rain…. This bouquet of odors is not limited to humans, however. Like us, bats face a complex world of smells that contribute to many different aspects of their behavior. Some bats use scents to pick up trails of ripening fruit. Others rely on particular odors to identify their family members from a tightly packed colony of thousands of bats on the roof of a cave.

OEB student Thomas P. Eiting, investigates how bats use their sense of smell. He studies how odors are perceived by the nose, and how a bat's sense of smell impacts other functions of the nose. For example, several groups of bats transmit their echolocation (biosonar) calls through their noses; Tom thinks that projecting calls out of their noses may limit bats in how effective they can be at using their sense of smell.

This image is a digital slice cut midway through the nose of a short-tailed bat, Carollia perspicillata. The white edge of the image marks the outside surface of the bony skeleton of the nose. Nearly all of the other thin, scroll-like structures are bones that, in life, would support the primary odor-receiving cells that go on to tell the brain what odor the bat is smelling. Using digital reconstructions like this, we are able to understand how these scroll-like bones are distributed among different species of bats, without destroying any specimens. We can also use these data to generate 3D models of airflow through the nose, so that we can understand how the shape of the nose may impact a bat's ability to smell.

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