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Between the Lines: Birds stink at smelling; dinosaurs didn't

I have been a dinosaur lover since birth.

As a child, I used to chomp off my sister’s Barbie doll heads with my life-like Tyrannosaurus rex model, which is why I was amazed when a recent study examining dinosaur olfactory bulbs, coauthored by scientists right here in Athens, almost slipped right under my nose.

A team of researchers, including scientists from Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, released a study chronicling the evolution of smell from dinosaurs to modern-day birds. Their findings show that the sense of smell improved during dinosaur-bird evolution — quite contrary to previous thought.

“Because birds today don’t have a good sense of smell, the thought was the bird had gotten rid of the sense of smell, but we found the opposite to be true. ... Evolution actually dictated its preservation,” said Lawrence Witmer, Chang Ying-Chien professor of paleontology at OU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The study compares the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain used for smell, in 157 species of dinosaurs and ancient birds. Scientists conducted CT scans of the dinosaur and bird skulls in order to rebuild the extinct animals’ brains.

From the scans, researchers calculated the sizes of the creatures’ olfactory bulbs — the larger the bulb, the better the sense of smell.

For predators such as T. rex, having a keen sense of smell might have helped during the hunt. It also could have been beneficial in terms of territoriality. It would have enabled the dinosaur to track scents and maintain boundaries, probably similar to what lions do today, Witmer said.

Picturing the massive T. rex with its snout to the ground snuffling around like your neighbor’s dog is a comical image to consider, but thanks to studies such as the olfactory one, researchers are getting a better idea of how dinosaurs might have behaved.

“In some respect, what we are getting is a new window into the lives of these animals. ... We are starting to figure out what their senses were like, which can provide a glimpse into what their behavior may have been like,” Witmer said.

Interestingly, the study wasn’t the only one released last week that sheds some light on how dinosaurs might have lived. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, examined the bony ring present in the remains of dinosaur skulls and concluded that some dinosaurs were mostly nocturnal.

According to the study, Velociraptor mongoliensis, made popular by Jurassic Park, would have been most active at night. The Velociraptor’s intelligence and sense of smell combined with the cover of darkness is a scary thought, and even though I love the creatures, I feel fortunate they are not around today.

If they were, I’m pretty sure I would end up like Barbie.

Caitlin Whitehurst is a junior studying public relations and senior copy editor for The Post. Do you think a sense of smell would make it easier for Velociraptors to catch you?

Email Caitlin at

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