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Underwater 'sniffing' by semi-aquatic mammals

Nature volume 444, pages 10241025 (21 December 2006) | Download Citation



Terrestrial species that forage underwater face challenges because their body parts and senses are adapted for land — for example, it is widely held that mammals cannot use olfaction underwater because it is impossible for them to inspire air (sniff) to convey odorants to the olfactory epithelium1,2,3,4,5. Here I describe a mechanism for underwater sniffing used by the semi-aquatic star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata) and water shrew (Sorex palustris). While underwater, both species exhale air bubbles onto objects or scent trails and then re-inspire the bubbles to carry the smell back through the nose. This newly described behaviour provides a mechanism for mammalian olfaction underwater.

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Author information


  1. Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, VU Station B, Box 35-1634, Nashville, Tennessee 37235, USA

    • Kenneth C. Catania


  1. Search for Kenneth C. Catania in:

Competing interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains supplementary material.


  1. 1.

    Video 1

    Video 1 shows wide angle, slow motion view of a star-nosed mole sniffing underwater.

  2. 2.

    Video 2

    Video 2 shows star-nosed mole sniffing a piece of wax underwater - note that the bubble contacts the wax.

  3. 3.

    Video 3

    Video 3 shows a star-nosed mole “sniffing” through a metal grid to control for touch with the star.

  4. 4.

    Video 4

    Videos 4 and 5 were captured with a Cannon XL-1 video recorder and show a star-nosed mole during the scent tracking behavior.

  5. 5.

    Video 5

    Videos 4 and 5 were captured with a Cannon XL-1 video recorder and show a star-nosed mole during the scent tracking behavior.

  6. 6.

    Video 6

    Video 6 shows a water shrew sniffing various objects underwater in slow motion.

  7. 7.

    Video 7

    Video 7 shows a water shrew during the scent tracking behavior.

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