Bomb-Sniffing Squirrels?

Grey Squirrel
Bomb-Sniffing Squirrels?
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

RALEIGH, NC –-( We all know that beagles have good noses. So do bird dogs.

And don’t write-off a Lab because some have excellent noses—good enough to make a blood hound howl with jealousy.

What about squirrels? Do they have good sniffers?

It turns out; squirrels are as tuned-into smells as the best dogs. Smells are a big part of a squirrel’s world. You’ve seen squirrels search for buried acorns. They hop, sniff, hop, sniff; then they start digging with bulls eye precision for the buried acorn. They find it by smell. This is why you often see squirrels digging after a rain—wet dirt and moist air carries smells better than when conditions are dry.

Have you ever watched a squirrel chasing a mate?

The first male may follow the female by sight, but the other males often trail the female using their noses. They run the limbs with their nose to the bark following her scent trail. They run full speed ahead without looking up. I’ve seen the males lose the trail at a fork in the branches, realize their error, return to the fork, and follow the right path after re-finding the trail.

Squirrels mark trees as a way of establishing their territories. The marks are chewed spots at the junction of the trunk and a limb (on the underside of the junction, and thus sheltered from rain). The squirrels chew the outer bark off the tree —maybe an area the size of a cell phone— and wipe their cheeks on the bare spot. Squirrel cheeks are loaded with scent glands. Some squirrels urinate on the bare spot. When other squirrels smell the marked spot, they know the territory is claimed, and just by the smell they probably know the individual squirrel that marked the spot. I did a study on fox squirrels using radio transmitters, and males sometimes traveled over a mile to a female in breeding condition.

I asked myself; “how did the males know?” I think they knew from smells carried by the wind. Nature is amazing.

You have probably seen squirrels wiping their cheeks on a branch and chasing each other with their noses to the trunk. Squirrels perceive the world as much with their noses as with their eyes and ears —maybe more so.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, but a pack of squirrels would be a lot cheaper to feed than a pack of beagles.

Could you train squirrels to chase rabbits? And would the rabbit run or just laugh? How about bomb sniffing squirrels? They would work for peanuts. That’s something to think about.

About the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
Since 1947, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has been dedicated to the conservation and sustainability of the state’s fish and wildlife resources through research, scientific management, wise use, and public input. The Commission is the state regulatory agency responsible for the enforcement of fishing, hunting, trapping and boating laws and provides programs and opportunities for wildlife-related educational, recreational and sporting activities. To learn more, visit

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