Elephants Have 2,000 Genes for Smell—Most Ever Found

We’ve long known that African elephants have a great sense of smell—but a new study shows that the large mammals have truly superior schnozzes.

Compared with 13 other mammal species studied, African elephants have the most genes related to smell: 2,000.

A photo of an African Elephant in Rift Valley, Kenya
A young African elephant in Amboseli, Kenya. Photograph by João Nuno Gonçalves, National Geographic Your Shot

That’s the most ever discovered in an animal—more than twice the number of olfactory genes in domestic dogs and five times more than in humans, who have about 400, according to research published July 22 in the journal Genome ResearchThe previous record-holder was rats, which have about 1,200 genes dedicated to smell.

Why so many? “We don’t know the real reason,” study leader Yoshihito Niimura, a molecular evolutionist at the University of Tokyo, said by email. But it’s likely related to the importance of smell to the poorly sighted African elephant in interpreting and navigating its environment.

For instance, smell is a crucial sense for the functioning of an elephant trunk, which acts like a hand as it grips food and other objects. (Related: “Elephants Use Their Trunks to Ace Intelligence Tests.”)

“They use olfaction to quest the outer world, which may drive [their] superior sense of smell,” Niimura said.

“Imagine the situation [in which] we have a nose on our palm!”

Sniffing Out Genes 

The team wanted to discern smell-related genes for as many species as possible, but very accurate genome information is available for only 13 mammal species, he said.

The team ran a special computer program that identified the elephant’s 2,000 olfactory genes. In doing so, they also wanted to get a better understanding of the function of these genes.

Their analysis revealed that over the course of evolution, one ancient gene dedicated to smell has created as many as 84 additional genes that the animals likely use to detect odors specific to their environment—for instance, the smell of certain foods on the savanna. (Get a genetics overview.)

“On the other hand, some other genes are evolutionarily very stable, without any change in number and with very few changes in sequence. These genes [are likely] very important for the survival of any mammal,” said Niimura.

He also emphasized that research on olfactory genes is still limited, and that another species—say, the Asian elephant—could very well break the African elephant’s record.

Superior Smellers

Overall, though, his research supports behavioral studies that show African elephants have an incredible nose for detecting odors.

For instance, studies have revealed that African elephants can distinguish between the scents of two ethnic groups in Kenya: the Maasai and the Kamba. (Related: “Elephants Know How Dangerous We Are From How We Speak.”)

“Maasai men spear elephants to show their virility, while Kamba people are agricultural and give little threat to them; therefore, elephants are afraid of Maasai men,” he said.

Joyce Poole, co-founder of the conservation group ElephantVoices, also referenced this ability of elephants to distinguish between tribes.

“This is a fascinating study that confirms what we have observed in the field,” Poole, also a National Geographic explorer, said by email. (See National Geographic’s elephant pictures.)

“If the wind is blowing in the correct direction, elephants can pick up the scent of humans … from over a kilometer [0.6 mile] away or detect and find the exact location of a tiny sliver of banana from over 50 meters [160 feet] away,” she said.

In addition, “experimental studies show that by sniffing urine-soaked soil, elephants can discriminate between and keep track of the location of family members.

“Want to know what is going through the mind of an elephant? I have always said: Watch the tip of its trunk.”

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Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.