Why Do Animals Taste Food Differently?


When it comes to taste, humans are seen as having a fairly well-refined palette, but other animals can taste far better than us. Taste is a crucial adaptation that allows animals to investigate their environment and avoid food sources that can potentially be poisonous or carrying dangerous pathogens.

Animals taste food differently from humans as they need to rely on their sense of taste to avoid eating food that might make them sick. Animals eat different foods to bring in the nutrients they are lacking. Some animals, such as catfish, cannot see what they are eating, so they rely more on their sense of taste. Butterflies and earthworms use chemoreceptors to identify safe food sources.

In this article, we look at why taste is important to animals and answer whether all animals taste things differently.

Do you know why animals help their own and other species?  Find out here in this article I wrote

Bear with tongue out

Want to know why moths eat clothes?  Find out in this article I wrote.

Why Taste Is Important

Taste and smell are both important senses. The odor and taste of the food indicate whether food is safe to eat. Animals rely heavily on their sense of taste to avoid eating anything that might make them sick.

This means avoiding poisonous plants, berries, and roots, which often have a bitter taste for herbivores. Carnivores will not eat a dead animal if it does not taste fresh or has a bad odor. Foods with a sweet taste are usually key sources of energy.

Animals can adjust their diet in terms of which nutrients they require the most. Carnivores, for example, will eat more of their prey animals’ stomach contents if they lack certain vitamins. Muscle meat is preferred if the predator needs more protein.

The same is true if animals have eaten too much of a particular nutrient. For example, animals will avoid sweet foods if they do not require a new energy source or avoid salty foods if their electrolytes are imbalanced.

Have you ever wondered what wolves eat?  You might be surprised.  Find out more here

Do All Animals Taste Food The Same Way?

All vertebrate animals have tongues, with taste buds able to detect various flavors, sweetness, and saltiness. Invertebrates like insects can taste using their proboscis (a long mouthpart used to suck up food) and in some species, through their feet.

There are 5 categories of taste or flavor:

  1. Sweet: this indicates a source of energy
  2. Sour: foods that are acidic
  3. Salty: affects electrolyte balance
  4. Bitter: poisonous or toxic
  5. Umami: meats and cheese, indicates amino acids

Not all animals can taste all 5 categories. Cats, for example, do not possess the taste buds required for detecting sweet flavors. 

In terms of taste buds, humans sit somewhere around average, with 8000–10,000 taste buds. Cows and other similar-sized herbivores have around 25,000. This is necessary as their diet is made up entirely of plant matter, so they need to recognize poisonous vegetation.

Birds tend to have the fewest taste buds, as most of their diet is seeds, with a few feeding on berries or small insects. A chicken has only 30 taste buds.

Reptiles are unique in the way they can taste. They possess an organ in the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson’s organ. Molecules travel to this organ, allowing the animal to determine if their potential food source is safe.

Do you know what fungi eat?  If not you can find out here.

6 Animals With The Best Sense of Taste

When it comes to taste and the ability to distinguish between different flavors, these animals are world leaders.

Catfish

There are many species of catfish, but they all possess the same physical attributes that give them such a strong sense of smell. Catfish have barbels, or whiskers, that grow from their mouth and chin. These barbels are covered in taste buds, along with most of the rest of the body, including the tail and fins. Catfish have taste receptors numbering up to 100,000 – the most of any animal species.

Taste buds are important to catfish as they live in murky water, so vision is not a sense that would help them locate prey. Their high volume of taste receptors allows them to quickly identify suitable food sources and avoid those that would be potentially poisonous or lack the necessary nutrients.

Find out how and why animals adapt in this article I wrote

Cows stomach

Cows

As previously mentioned, cows have a marvelous sense of taste. Their tongue is covered in approximately 25,000 taste buds. Cows spend on average around 8 hours per day grazing, so they need to detect toxic substances.

This means they can safely graze without the risk of ingesting poisonous plants. It also means they are less likely to get sick after eating. Cows are ruminants, which means they regurgitate partially digested food to chew further. This allows for better digestion as plant matter has a cellulose layer that is difficult to break down.

Do you know how many stomachs a cow has?  If you said four, then you are on the right track, but not correct.  Find out more here

Octopus

An octopus has roughly the same number of taste buds as humans. They are notoriously picky eaters, as they can remember the taste of foods they have eaten before and will often show a preference for certain foods.

They can detect minor changes in the chemical concentrations of the water around them. This is possible thanks to the hundreds of suckers they have on each of their 8 arms. This makes them highly sensitive creatures and able to quickly detect when a viable food source is close by. They do not even need to leave the safety of their home until they are certain food is available.

Bees

They may be tiny, but bees are mighty in terms of tasting ability. Not only do they have taste buds in their mouths, but also along along their antennae and legs. They use their antennae to determine how sweet a flower is. The sweeter the flower, the more nectar it produces. Honeybees are capable of tasting sweet, salty, bitter, and sweet flavors. 

Do you know how and why animals move?  Find out here.

Butterflies

When it comes to unusual eating habits, butterflies are definite contenders. They have chemoreceptors on their feet, meaning they can use their feet to identify safe food sources. If the food is determined to be safe, the butterfly will then transfer chemicals from the proboscis, which will begin to dissolve the food. The butterfly can then suck up the liquified food and absorb the nutrients.

Female butterflies use this same method to find the perfect plant on which to lay their eggs. She uses taste receptors on her legs to determine if a particular plant is suitable. It must contain the chemicals and nutrients required for the hatched caterpillars to survive.

Earthworms

An earthworm’s entire body is covered in chemoreceptors. This allows the worm to detect chemicals within the soil as they burrow through it. Plant matter that has only just begun to decompose is the best source of food. This food gives off a different amount and combination of chemicals than fresh food or food that has been decomposing for a long time.

Have you ever wondered how insects eat?  Find out in this article I wrote.

References

Animal Sake. (2013, August 8). Animals with an unbelievably amazing sense of taste. Retrieved from Animal Sake: https://animalsake.com/animals-with-amazing-sense-of-taste

Biological Exceptions. (2014, February 5). Cats don’t taste sweet, but dogs taste salty. Retrieved from Biological Exceptions: https://biologicalexceptions.blogspot.com/2014/02/cats-dont-taste-sweet-but-dogs-taste.html

Bittel, J. (2014, November 22). Four weird ways animals sense the world. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/141122-crabs-snakes-smell-taste-nose-science-biology

Chudler, D. (2019, December 4). Amazing animal senses. Retrieved from Neuroscience for kids: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/amaze.html

Hemsley, D. S. (2010, August 12). Do animals taste the same things as humans? Retrieved from ABC Science: https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/08/12/2980854.htm

Lambert, J. (2020, October 29). How octopuses taste things by touching. Retrieved from Science News: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/octopus-taste-touch-arm-suckers

Loomis, M. (2014, April 30). 20 things you didn’t know about animal senses. Retrieved from Discover magazine: https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/20-things-you-didnt-know-about-animal-senses

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Nature.

Recent Posts