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Home > Research & Collections > News > How Well Can You Smell?

How Well Can You Smell?

NHMLA Mammalogy collections and the evolution of olfaction

UCLA graduate student Deborah Bird is (despite her surname) interested in mammals and how they evolved their sense of smell.


A visitor to the NHMLA Mammalogy Collections wants to know how much different animals rely on their sense of smell. Deborah Bird is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and she’s interested in the evolution of olfaction (the sense of smell) in mammals. So how is she doing research in the collections among thousands of preserved specimens? Well, the cells that help mammals smell, bringing information from the nose to the brain, leave a mark on the skull — specifically, a little hole through the bone. That means that long after the animal has died and those cells have decomposed, the skull retains information about how many olfactory neurons were once there. She can then compare different species by looking at the structure of their skulls — just one more way we can learn amazing things from the collections here at the Museum.



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