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Sea Otters and a Sense of Smell

September 1, 2004

Contrary to popular belief that marine mammals have a poor sense of smell, sea otters may have a nose that can actually help them distinguish between contaminated and safe abalone and clams, some of their favorite foods. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researchers are studying olfaction – the ability to smell – in sea otters at several aquaria around the country to compare the otter’s general sensitivity to smell with that of other mammals, including dogs, in light of the differences in their nasal anatomy. Potential applications for this information include the development of chemical otter-repellants to minimize contact between otters and environmental hazards like oil spills, and repellents designed to block natural odors found in abalone and clams to keep sea otters from raiding shellfish hatcheries.