Bears Sense of Smell – How Powerful is a Bear’s Nose?

Bears Sense of Smell – How Powerful is a Bear’s Nose?

Bears are notorious for getting themselves, and people, into a fair amount of trouble as a result of their incredible sense of smell. They often raid campsites where food is left out or not cleaned up, they get into neighborhood garbage that’s not properly secured or disposed of, and they can be a difficult and dangerous challenge for fishermen, hunters, berry pickers, and others who enter into bear country and utilize the same food sources that they do. Sometimes bears even break into stores, restaurants, and as pictured below, a fish fry shed at a church, in order to investigate a potential meal.

The aftermath of a Kodiak bear breaking into a fish fry shed at St. Mary's Church.
The aftermath of a Kodiak bear breaking into a fish fry shed at St. Mary’s Church on Kodiak Island, Alaska.


Indeed, any situation where there are bears present, along with attractive aromas in the air, can turn into potential trouble. And keep in mind, it’s not just food smells that can attract hungry or curious bears. Things like toothpaste, deodorant, perfume or cologne, or other personal care items with strong, pleasing aromas can be very appealing to bears.

In several of my past bear blogs and videos, I mentioned that bears have one of the best senses of smell in all the animal kingdom. To get a good idea of just how powerful a bear’s nose is, lets first consider another mammal with renowned olfactory capability: the bloodhound dog. The bloodhound is commonly used by crime investigators, search and rescue teams, and other professionals for tracking purposes, as the bloodhound can smell 1000 times greater than people. While we humans have around 5 million scent receptors in our nose, the bloodhound has 300 million! These incredible canines can follow a scent trail for more than 130 miles and can detect scent that’s over two weeks old. They can even detect scents that are underwater, such as when used for recovering drowning victims from lakes or rivers.

Now, with all that in mind, consider that grizzly bears, coastal brown bears, and Kodiak bears can smell 4-5 times better than a bloodhound, and black bears can smell even 7 times better! That equates to a bear’s nose and sense of smell being 2000 times stronger than we humans!

Depending on the particular species, a bear’s nose can be nine inches long, with lots of surface area for millions and millions of scent receptors. Along with that, the area of their brain that’s responsible for detecting scent, the olfactory bulb, is five times larger than ours. It’s no wonder that bears can smell food sources up to 20 miles away, or, like the polar bear, through 3 feet of ice!

The Adventures of King Kodiak, The Biggest Brown Bear in the World, Joseph Classen
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So that’s an overview of how well bears can smell. To watch the video version of this blog article, click here.

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