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You Smell Like Death

September 9, 2009

Brit Trogen

Science in Seconds blog Brit Trogen

If you've ever spent a significant amount of time around decaying corpses (and I know I have), you've probably noticed that they give off a rather unpleasant odor.

Well, if you ever wondered exactly what caused that smell, your day has come. Researchers at McMaster University have pinpointed the exact chemical that causes the "stench of death," and furthermore have discovered that the extract is highly conserved across a huge number of animal species.

This makes sense, in a morbid way. If your friend or relative died of a viral infection, or was disemboweled by a lurking predator, it's probably to your advantage to stay away from the place where it happened. So we evolved a method of recognizing death, and a natural repulsion towards it. This "death recognition system" is now believed to have evolved over 400 million years ago, in the form of a scented extract released by dead bodies or "death juice".

The culprit is a blend of fatty acids composed primarily of oleic and linoleic acid. And if you were worried the researchers didn't do enough messing around with corpse juice, just relax. They also had some fun by putting droplets of it on living ants and cockroaches, and then watching them be forcibly removed from their nests by their coworkers.

Of course, this research will be used for more important applications like... Um... Well actually I'm not sure what it could be used for. But at least now necrophiliacs know what to use to build up their tolerance.


**Update: Okay, so it turns out they may actually use this research to detect bodies from earthquakes and avalanches, which is actually kind of useful. So... scratch that last bit.**

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