Smelling in the Wild

Smelling in the Wild is an interdisciplinary collaborative series of projects that explore how humans smell in natural spaces. Humans have not lived in natural settings (in the strictest sense of the definition) for the majority of our evolutionary history. In the secondary sense of the word natural, we have lived in spaces that are are ‘in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding’ our species. Thus, natural spaces for most of our evolutionary history are ones that humans may have slightly modified for shelter and larger settlements but include natural spaces that humans interact with during daily life. Natural spaces for modern humans tend to be ones that are made by or caused by human activity–this includes urban spaces but can include rural spaces like farmlands. By including the secondary meaning of natural, we stretch the limits of what is meant by wild. But, the natural setting of humans is not a non-wild one but one that is the wild type human environment.

We are interested in how humans smell in the wild because the majority of research conducted on human olfaction is done in labs that present high quality pure odors to humans through a direct delivery mechanism. While these studies are useful in their elimination of variables that may confound detection and perception, they provide extremely limited understandings of how humans receive and behaviorally interpret olfactory cues in natural settings–i.e., simply knowing that humans can detect X odor at Y threshold does not result in us knowing if humans can detect X odor in complex and dynamic odor mixtures that constitute natural (including built) smellscapes.

The first project funded by the British Academy explores hunter-gatherer olfactory ability. By testing indigenous populations in their natural environments, the larger aim of the study is to understand the link between the biology and genetics of olfaction and sensory ecology pressures acting on it.

The second project explores linkages between pollution, well-being, and olfaction in urban settings. This project takes place in the UK and we are controlling for pollution exposure, lived sensory environment, and genetics to isolate a true signal of linkages across domains. See here for a blog on results of a pilot study and here for a preprint of the pilot study.