Cat's out the bag! Their sense of smell mirrors advanced chemical analysis

High-res micro-CT scans and fluid dynamics modeling unveil intriguing insights into one of cats' superpowers: smell.
Sade Agard
Cats' sense of smell function similarly to parallel coiled gas chromatographs.
Cats' sense of smell function similarly to parallel coiled gas chromatographs.

Petra Richli/iStock 

Prepare to step into the fascinating world of feline sniffing prowess! Scientists have harnessed a new computer simulation to unlock the secrets of our domestic cats' extraordinary sense of smell, according to a study published in PLOS Computational Biology on June 29. 

They found that just like high-tech laboratory equipment, cats' convoluted nasal structures function as parallel coiled gas chromatographs, allowing them to analyze the chemical composition of substances efficiently.  

Micro-CT imaging: What does a cat's nose tell you?

Vertebrates utilize their noses for both breathing and smelling. Odor detection within their nasal passages resembles the principles of gas chromatography, where the substance being analyzed is vaporized and carried through a tube by a continuous flow of gas. 

Different chemical components interact uniquely along the tube's length, allowing for their identification. While similarities between gas chromatography and nose function have been observed in amphibians, limited research has explored these parallels in mammalian noses, which possess intricate air passages for odor detection.

Zhenxing Wu and colleagues from Ohio State University shed new light by creating a precise 3D computational model of a domestic cat's nose. The model was developed using a combination of techniques, such as high-resolution micro-CT (micro-computed tomography) scans of a real cat's nose and computational fluid dynamics modeling.

Cat's out the bag! Their sense of smell mirrors advanced chemical analysis
Researchers use a 3D model to find that house cats’ noses may function like highly efficient chemical analysis equipment.

Simulation of air and odor flow through the virtual cat nose revealed a striking resemblance to a parallel coiled gas chromatograph, in which the efficiency of the basic technique is boosted by the use of multiple tubes branching off of one high-speed gas stream.

Simply put, if it had only one straight tube for this purpose, it would need to be longer than its head allows. However, cats have evolved with multiple complex channels in their noses, making their odor detection 100 times more efficient compared to amphibians that have a single straight tube. 

Ultimately, the evolution of more convoluted nasal channels in cats has enabled them to excel in precisely and effectively sniffing scents. 

"The evolutionary occurrence of the convoluted olfactory turbinate channels in mammalian noses, remarkably resembles a different sensory organ, the snail-like coiled cochlea that is also unique to mammals," added the authors in a press release.

The theory surrounding cochlea and 'olfactory cochlea'

They highlighted an interesting fact about the inner hearing organ of birds and other non-mammalian vertebrates; this organ, known as the "cochlea," is a blind-ended tube in these animals. 

In contrast, in mammals like us, the cochlea is crucial in enhancing our hearing sensitivity and range of frequencies. 

Building on this knowledge, the researchers believe that a similar structure, called the "olfactory cochlea (i.e., the parallel coiled chromatograph)," may exist in mammals and contribute to our enhanced sense of smell.

"The finding reveals novel mechanisms to support high olfactory performance, furthering our understanding of the successful adaptation of mammalian species, including the cat, an important pet, to diverse environments," they concluded. 

The complete study was published in PLOS Computational Biology and can be found here

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