If you want the short answer to the question of how far can a bear smell it’s this – much further than you think! Much, much further.
So, make sure you hide those marmalade sandwiches. Otherwise, your picnic might end getting gatecrashed by something a lot nastier than Paddington.
Want a longer, more in-depth answer? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Because that’s exactly what you’re going to get below. We’re going to take a look at exactly what nostril power the average bear is packing. Prepare yourself, it’s gonna get grizzly!
FYI: It Depends on the Bear
There are eight different species of bears out there, split into many more subspecies. The main eight are as follows: sun bears, polar bears, giant pandas, spectacled bears, Asiatic black bears, brown bears (which include grizzly bears), American black bears and sloth bears.
Each bear has evolved in different habitats with a different nose. And as a result, trying to give one exact answer to the smelling power of a bear is impossible. It’s like asking how fast can a fish swim, or how tall a building is. A little more context is needed.
How Far Can a Black Bear Smell?
The National Parks Service (NPS) probably has more to do with bears than almost anyone. They claim that a bear’s sense of smell is better even than that of a Bloodhound Dog. That’s the type of species bred specifically to have a good sense of smell. Bloodhounds are the dogs the FBI would use to hunt you down if you ever went on the run.
In fact, it’s been claimed by some that a black bear has a sense of smell seven times greater than a Bloodhound.
To put that into context – and this might blow your mind – bloodhounds have a sense of smell 300 times better than a human. Which, if you employ a little grade school math means, a black bear has a sense of smell 2,100 times better than you and I.
Think about that for a second. If you were a black bear your socks would smell 2,100 times worse than they do right now. Oh, my!
But what does that translate to in miles? Well, the NPS says it’s about 18-20 miles. Eek!
How Far Can Polar Bears Smell?
If you were impressed by the Black Bear, you are about to be blown away by the nostril power of their cousins from the Great White North. It’s thought that a Polar Bear can follow the scent of seals from 40 miles away.
How Far Can a Grizzly Bear Smell?
Unknown, exactly. The info is scant on this one, as it is on all bears. The danger of researchers hanging out with something that would like to eat them is probably a big factor to do with this lack of data. It’s likely something very similar to a black bear.
The Anatomy of a Bear’s Nose
Ok, so we’re sure your mind is already a little blown by those distances but have you ever thought of why a bear has to smell so far?
You’ve heard of a power hose – well, bears have a power nose. (Sorry, that was a terrible joke. But it’s true.) Think of a bear’s face. They don’t just have a pathetic little hooter as we do, they have an entire muzzle dedicated to sniffing things out. Inside that snout is what is known in the nose world as nasal mucosa. A bear’s nasal mucosa is typically at least 100 times larger than ours.
The Importance of Bears’ Sense of Smell
Ok, so now we know how they smell so well, and how far they smell. The next question is: why do they have such an amazing sense of smell?
One former park ranger in the bear-riddled Katmai National Park described a bear’s sense of smell in the following way.
“I would characterize a bear’s sense of smell as complex and just as important to their lives as sight is to humans.”
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, but bears also have eyes and can see”, you’d be right. Bears can both see you and smell you. Oh, and outrun you.
The most obvious reason for this power of super sniffing is that it helps them find food in the great outdoors. Which, as it happens, is quite a hard task. The woods are a big place and most things don’t like being eaten. So it pays to have the tools to find food when it’s going.
As well as finding dinner, a bear uses its nose to understand the world around it. Sight is fleeting. Smells linger. Often for days. A bear uses its nose to read the news. Who and what has been passed recently. What rivals, what potential love interests, what potential dangers. Each smell is like turning over a new page in that day’s newspaper.
Final Thoughts: What Smells Attract Bears?
Ok, so we’ve learned how far can a bear smell. But what smells will summon them?
Short answer: Almost everything.
Bears are one of the natural world’s great omnivores. That means they are basically mobile waste disposal units and will pretty much eat everything. As a result, they are attracted by the smells of almost anything. Of course, they will be attracted by the smell of your sizzling sausages but what fewer campers realise is they will also be attracted by the smell of toothpaste, even suntan lotion.
You have got to think of things this way. The great outdoors is a pretty barren place. Bears are constantly hungry and constantly on the hunt for anything remotely edible to either help them fuel their lumbering engines or fatten themselves up for winter. They will pretty much hoover up anything with any odour at all.
Anything that is food, could be mistaken for food, has been used to prepare food or any utensils than touched food, washed or not, needs to be stored well away from your sleeping area. This is not something to be lazy about, not unless you want to wake up with a grizzly tent mate.