Weird Animal Question of the Week

Why This Animal's Pee Smells Like Hot Buttered Popcorn

Southeast Asia's bearcat has a movie-theater aroma, but it's not the only animal that smells like snack foods.

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Bearcats, or binturongs (pictured, an animal at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo) emit a smell that strongly resembles popcorn.


Whether we like things sweet or spicy, we all have our favorite snacks. And strangely enough, a few wild animals have smells that strongly resemble these foods. 

That's why Weird Animal Question of the Week took author's prerogative to ask: Which animals smell like the treats at a movie concession stand? (See: "Beaver Butts Emit Goo Used for Vanilla Flavoring.")  

Popcorn 

Binturongs, or bearcats, are neither bears nor cats. These Southeast Asian mammals are actually related to small forest predators like fossascivets, and genets. They also happen to smell like hot buttered popcorn. 

A new study published in The Science of Nature found this bewitching scent is produced by a chemical compound in their urine called 2-AP.  

When a binturong urinates, the liquid soaks its feet and fuzzy tails, leaving a scent trail that lets other binturongs know their presence and perhaps their sex, since the compound is stronger in males. 

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Though animals may smell like snacks, we don't recommend feeding wildlife—especially captive animals.


The chemical compound 2-AP is the same substance that gives fresh popcorn its yummy smell, according to the scientists. When a popcorn kernel is heated, the proteins and sugars create a chemical reaction that in turn forms 2-AP. 

In the case of the binturong, researchers think the compound may be produced when the animal's urine reacts with bacteria in the animal's gut, skin, or fur, or with other microorganisms. 

So don't get too excited next time you think you smell microwave popcorn at the office. Maybe a binturong just left its calling card in the break room.  

Corn Chips 

Binturongs aren't the only beasts that smell of snack food. Paws of the domestic dog have a rep for smelling like corn chips. 

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Corn chips, anyone? Domestic dogs may have bacteria in their paws that emit a snack-food aroma.


The odor is most likely caused either by yeast or a bacterium called proteus or pseudomonas, any of which would "do well in the damp, airless, unventilated areas between dog toes," says Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University in Massachusetts.  

"The scents given off by yeast and bacteria are their metabolic waste products, like sweat," says Anne Estes, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland's Institute for Genome Science. 

It's unknown why these organisms in dog toes smell specifically like corn chips, but they "can smell like different things to different people," Estes says.  

The scent is no cause for alarm, Dodman adds, considering that human skin hosts a plethora of bacteria, but if the smell gets extremely strong you should visit the vet. 

Otherwise just enjoy the corny goodness and try not to take a bite: They are nacho toes.  

Lemon Drops 

Ants love candy, so it's only fitting that the aptly named citronella ant, found throughout the United States, should smell like this lovely confection. 

John Acorn, a naturalist at the University of Alberta, says via email that these and many other ant species defend themselves by biting and spraying formic acid, a colorless liquid that plays a role in many ants' chemical reactions. 

Formic acid tastes and smells like citric acid, hence the lemon or citrus smell they give off.  

Almonds and Cherry Cola 

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The flat millipede's defensive scent is compared to almonds and cherry cola.


You can find this nice combination of scents from the flat millipede of the U.S., which gives off a defensive spray that people compare to cherry, almond, or cherry cola. The smell is due to the insect's production of cyanide, which helps deter predators. 

North America's almond-scented millipede gets its nutty name from its odor, and the flat millipede of the U.S. has a scent that has been compared to cherry, almond, or cherry cola.  

These aromatic arthropods get their scents by producing hydrogen cyanide, which they use as a defensive spray to deter predators. (Related: "Five Animals With Stinky Defenses.") 

Anyone else skipping dessert?  

Mints 

After all these nibbles, you'll need a mint.  

The white admiral butterfly of the northeastern U.S. and Canada seems to smell like wintergreen—a group of aromatic plants—for a reason. 

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A white admiral butterfly alights on daisies. The insect excretes a minty smell in its poop.


The butterfly—as well as another species, the viceroy—acquire the scent from feeding on wintergreen flowers, says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona. 

How is the smell excreted? "They poop it on you," she says. 

Then there's Australia's peppermint stick insect, a four-inch (10-centimeter) long bug that, when threatened, sprays a noxious liquid that smells like peppermint.  

Don't feel bad. We know people who emit way worse when they're nervous. 

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.

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