Humans have a refined palette for taste, but other animals can taste far better than we. Taste is a crucial adaptation that allows animals to investigate their environment and avoid food sources that can potentially be poisonous or carry 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.
This article looks at why taste is vital to animals and answers whether all animals taste things differently.
Why Taste Is Important
Taste and smell are both essential 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 foul odor. Foods with a sweet taste are usually vital sources of energy.
Animals can adjust their diet to which nutrients they require the most. Carnivores, for example, will eat more of their prey animals’ stomach contents if they lack specific vitamins. Muscle meat is preferred if the predator needs more protein.
If animals have overeaten a particular nutrient, the same is true. 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.
Do All Animals Taste Food The Same Way?
All vertebrate animals have tongues, with taste buds detecting 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 five categories of taste or flavor:
- Sweet: this indicates a source of energy
- Sour: acidic foods
- Salty: affects electrolyte balance
- Bitter: poisonous or toxic
- Umami: meats and cheese, indicating amino acids
Not all animals can taste all five 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.
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.
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. The barrels, tails, and fins are covered in taste buds. 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.
As previously mentioned, cows have a marvelous sense of taste. Their tongue is covered with 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.
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 on each of their eight 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.
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 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 can taste sweet, salty, bitter, and sweet flavors.
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 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.
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 food source. This food gives off a different amount and combination of chemicals than fresh food or food that has been deteriorating for a long time.
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 is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.