Magazine article Natural History

A Nose for All Reasons

Magazine article Natural History

A Nose for All Reasons

Article excerpt

From courtship to camouflage, sinking to swimming, there's a nose for the job.

Noses are for more than just smelling-- or for holding up spectacles, as Pangloss remarks in Voltaire's Candide.

Olfaction is certainly the nose's ancestral role, and smelling remains important for most animals, but in many disparate groups of vertebrates the organ has been co-opted for a variety of other, quite different functions. The reasons for the nose's evolutionary adaptability are straightforward. For starters, it is well positioned to greet the environment. In addition, it can be modified without compromising essential tasks such as locomotion or chewing. Finally, nasal anatomy makes use of diverse raw materials-bone, cartilage, muscle, blood vessels, connective tissues-on which natural selection can draw.

I was thrust into the arena of nose anatomy by dinosaurs. Along with Scott Sampson, of the University of Utah, I had noticed that certain groups of dinosaurs had enormous and complicated noses, some taking up half the skull. Clearly, something biologically important was going on. Previous researchers had proposed a number of possibilities, based on loose analogies with animals living today. Hoping to unravel the enigma of dinosaur noses, we decided to conduct our own studies of modern analogues. My collaborators (including many students) and I soon discovered just how evolutionarily labile the vertebrate nasal apparatus is.

A variety of mammals, such as tapirs and elephants, have evolved a trunk (nose plus upper hp) capable of manipulating objects. …

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