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How Well Can a Whitetail Deer Smell?

How Well Can a Whitetail Deer Smell?

A zoomed-in image of a whitetail deer nose.

A whitetail’s sense of smell is its ultimate superpower

The short answer? Better than a dog.  

Let’s get a little nosey.

Whitetail Deer Have a Great Sense of Smell

A deer’s nose has 297 million olfactory receptors whereas a dog has 220 million. Humans, for comparison, have a mere 5 million.

Olfactory receptors are nerve cells that line the inside of our noses. When odiferous air molecules enter, these nerve cells transmit messages to the brain. This happens instantaneously. This is your cue to take out the kitchen garbage you’ve been letting overflow as I have. 

With 297 million olfactory receptors, the sense of smell is a deer’s ultimate superpower—superior, even, to its hearing. Although those big ears give them an advantage in collecting sound, the deer’s hearing range is similar to a human’s. Therefore, it’s nowhere near as powerful as their sense of smell. 

Does Scent-Blocking Spray Work?

Growing up in Alabama, I often went hunting with my stepdad in my adolescent and early teen years. We had an RV parked at his hunting camp in the southwestern part of the state, near the Mississippi border. He’d wake me up in the wee hours of the morning—probably earlier than necessary since I moved like molasses. Half-asleep, I’d slowly pull on my cotton long johns, then the camo pants, then three camo jackets. I hated the cold. The final layer was the dirt-smelling spray he’d liberally apply to our outer layers of clothing.

With Skoal tucked in his lip, he’d whisper, “Hold out yer leg.” He’d spray my extended limbs one at a time. Then he would spray my hair because “it’s the loudest-smellin’” to a deer. I’d think, Is this really necessary? I’m sure the flat, muted soil-spray did little to cover the scent of Cucumber Melon or Sweet Pea lotion wafting from beneath my many layers. We’d step out into the early morning darkness after some “doe pee” was sprinkled on my boots. I’d teeter behind, bundled up like the kid from A Christmas Story.

Did it work? Was the spray necessary? It’s hard to say. My experiences of hunting those years were from shooting houses. I’m sure the wind that would carry our human scent, including my Bath & Body Works lotion, was blocked by the house’s four dark green walls. In the two times I was successful in my hunt, neither deer I harvested was a wound-up buck, chasing down the smell of doe pee. Instead, I bagged a young doe and a spike buck, and I cried both times.

The Texture of a Deer Nose

My stepdad has been successful in his whitetail pursuits. He proudly displays four mounts in the house he shares with my mom back in Alabama. One is the state record in 1985—a 22-point. When my mother and stepdad first started dating, we would come over to his house. I would be enamored with the big deer’s head mounted on the wall. I examined the 22-point deer very scientifically, running my fingers down its face and over its ears. Tediously, I would count and re-count the points on the antlers. I remember the most surprising part of the deer’s face was the texture of his nose.

Instead of a smooth, black surface, the deer’s nose was bumpy. I now know that a bumpy nose increases the surface area, making a deer more capable of capturing those smelly air molecules. This nose is also almost always wet when a live deer is walking about in the woods, instead of dry and rough like on the mount. I remember fitting my thumb and finger inside the deer’s nostrils. The nostrils are large and banana-shaped on the flanks of deers’ snouts. They’re more like tiny cow noses than dog noses.

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

The Shape of a Deer Nose

Consider your nose. A human nose is small and flanked by cheeks. Deer have a long, narrow snout to funnel smells. I would say that all dogs do too, but consider the pug. Neither you nor I have an elongated muzzle. Because we rely primarily upon our eyesight, the human face’s shape makes evolutionary sense. If deer and dogs rely primarily on their sense of smell, their faces make evolutionary sense.

The Depth of a Deer Nose

How deep is your nose? Come on. You know—you pick it! Or is that just me? It’s typically a finger-knuckle deep. All the smelling tissue inside our nose is called the olfactory epithelium. Humans have about 1.5 square inches of this tissue. Now, think about the depth of a deer’s nose. A deer has an olfactory epithelium of 14 square inches. If you were to take out that tissue and unfold it lengthways, that is over a foot of smelling power. And we all know one thing: feet smell!

Yes, Deer Have Smelly Feet, Too

Speaking of feet, deer feet do smell as strongly as yours! Whitetail deer need a vast library of smells not only to survive but to communicate. Deer have a gland system that exudes pheromones. Between the cloves of a deer’s hoof, there is an interdigital gland that acts as a trail marker, cluing other deer in on the pathway and direction of each individual deer.

This glandular communication is most important during the rut. When a buck makes a scrape, he isn’t just rubbing off his velvet or scratching his itchy head. He is leaving behind specific information about himself from his forehead gland: his breeding status, his genetics, his age, etc. This particular glandular area can leave behind a scent lasting a couple of days or longer. Bucks also lick the branches around his scrape. Imagine if we did that! Instead of swiping on Tinder, we could rub our heads on telephone poles or lick office cubicles, leave clues to our approximate height, age, diet, and reluctance to take out the kitchen garbage.

Deer Smells, Glands, and Brains

We cannot continue without mentioning the smelliest gland of them all: the tarsal gland. This gland is located halfway down a deer’s legs. These glands secrete a fatty coating on the tufts of hair. During the rut, bucks will urinate on these glands, which causes a very pungent smell. Does have these glands, too, and a buck can smell a doe up to half a mile away.

Inside of the nasal cavity, there are glands that secrete mucus to lubricate the inside of a deer’s nose, almost like lip balm. This also helps odiferous air molecules stick to those olfactory receptors. A whitetail deer can identify up to six distinct smells at once. The olfactory cortex in the brain, which interprets scent, is unsurprisingly larger in a whitetail deer than in the human brain. I can smell the pizza you’re having for lunch. A whitetail deer can smell the crust, the marinara sauce, the cheese, the chicken, the bacon, and the pineapple. A whitetail deer can probably also smell how long it has been sitting out on the counter before you’ve eaten it and which direction you took to get to your couch with the plate in hand.

Deer Have a Second Nose?

Deer also have basically a second nose. This is a pea-sized, diamond-shaped, scent-detecting gland called the vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ, that is located in the roof of the mouth. When a buck curls his lips back in the rut after smelling a doe or a doe’s urine, he is activating that vomeronasal organ, which bypasses the part of the brain interpreting scents and immediately causes a hormonal response in the buck if the doe is in estrus, or in heat.

Deer Can Smell You on the Wind

When my stepdad and I went hunting, we had the advantage of four walls and of our rifles. I was able to shoot a deer much further away than had we been bowhunting from the ground or a tree stand. A bowhunter must be close enough to accurately aim, not be seen, and most importantly, not be sniffed out.

Companies in the hunting industry have introduced many options for scent control, like polymers and antimicrobials. The detergent while laundering your hunting clothes and even where you store it can make a difference in the “loudness” of your scent. What is foolproof is knowing the direction of the wind and your location relative to its direction. How you determine wind direction can be done in a few different ways: apps on your phone, wind direction powder, even blowing bubbles! If you are upwind of that big, burly buck, it’s more than likely he will be able to detect you with his super sniffer, so leave your Cucumber Melon lotion unapplied.

The Animal Kingdom is Full of Super Sniffers

A whitetail deer has an incredible nose—I mean, incredible. Evolving to avoid canine predators like wolves who have a keen sense of smell perhaps made a deer’s sense of smell even better. They beat the sharp-toothed sniffers at their own game. Incidentally, as good as a deer can smell, elephants and bears rival each other on the best noses in the animal kingdom. So, the next time you’re out hunting whitetail deer or taking out the trash, pause to appreciate all the super noses out there that probably smell you at that very moment.

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