Seeing how my roommate has taken up mantracking, and in the annual Man versus Horse Marathon people have now won twice, it came as little surprise to learn that people can track by scent pretty damn well. I knew there was a reason we made it out of Africa.
The Man versus Horse Marathon was organized on the assumption that, over long distances, men and horses would run pretty much as well as each other. Big surprise, that’s what they found. So what about smell? Surely evolution wouldn’t let it atrophy that much? Some scientists (those guys again) decided to test this hypothesis by blinding and gagging some undergraduates so that they would only rely on their sense of smell. Then they put them on all fours and made them sniff along the ground to try to follow a chocolate scent the researchers had smeared all over.
It turns out that two-thirds of the undergrads were able to follow the trail to the end. They used the same strategy as a dog, weaving back and forth over the scent. The researchers also found that people compare odor intensity across sniffs (hence the weaving) and odor intensity between nostrils. Sadly, we’re still nowhere near as good as dogs are. Maybe one day. Perhaps we can make olfactory prosthetics? The dream lives on.