On October 2, 2022, four days after Hurricane Ian hit Florida, a search-and-rescue Rottweiler named Ares was walking the ravaged streets of Fort Myers when the moment came that he had been training for. Ares picked up a scent within a smashed home and raced upstairs, with his handler trailing behind, picking his way gingerly through the debris.
They found a man who had been trapped inside his bathroom for two days after the ceiling caved in. Some 152 people died in Ian, one of Florida’s worst hurricanes, but that lucky man survived thanks to Ares’ ability to follow a scent to its source.
We often take for granted the ability of a dog to find a person buried under rubble, a moth to follow a scent plume to its mate or a mosquito to smell the carbon dioxide you exhale. Yet navigating by nose is more difficult than it might appear, and scientists are still working out how animals do it.
“What makes it hard is that odors, unlike light and sound, don’t travel in a straight line,” says Gautam Reddy, a biological physicist at Harvard University who coauthored a survey of the way animals locate odor sources in the 2022 Annual Review of Condensed Matter Physics. You can see the problem by looking at a plume of cigarette smoke. At first it rises and travels in a more or less straight path, but very soon it starts to oscillate and finally it starts to tumble chaotically, in a process called turbulent flow. How could an animal follow such a convoluted route back to its origin?