It’s no surprise that nature has come up all kinds of unique scents to increase an organism's chances of survival. These scents are usually horrible - Exhibit A: skunk, Exhibit B: the infamous corpse flower that, as its name implies, smells distinctly like rotting flesh.
While stench seems to be the norm for nature, a creature called the bearcat is something special, because it trades the noxious stank for something way more mouth-watering (the good mouth-watering, not the pre-vomit mouth-watering provided by the corpse flower): buttery popcorn! Yup, there’s an animal lurking out there that smells like movie treats, and researchers have just found out why.
Hint: it’s urine!
The discovery came as a joint team of researchers from multiple institutions gave 33 bearcats routine physical examinations at the Carolina Tiger Rescue, a wildlife sanctuary in North Carolina.
During their exam, the team analysed urine samples from the endangered mammals using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, reports Jennifer Viegas for Discovery News.
And here's where things get totally weird. When the analyses results came back, the researchers found 29 compounds inside in the bearcat urine samples. One of these compounds was 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2-AP) - the very same chemical that gives buttered popcorn its unique smell.
Let’s reiterate that: bearcat urine doesn’t just smell like buttered popcorn, it's made from the exact same chemical compound.
For popcorn, 2-AP forms when heat causes a slew of chemical reactions inside the kernel, primarily between sugar and amino acids. Dubbed the Maillard reaction, this process creates many of the ‘cooked food’ smells that we, as humans, drool over.
So how do bearcats pull this same reaction off without the insane levels of heat that food needs to do the same? No one really knows, though the researchers behind the discovery have a few ideas.
The first is that bearcats could create 2-AP thanks to a reaction in their gut or when their urine comes in contact with certain bacteria on their fur in the same way that our bodies make odours in our armpits.
The team suggests that bearcats use this odour as a form of communication by leaving trails of urine in their wake.
So, if you find yourself in Southeast Asia and suddenly get a whiff of popcorn, cool your jets, because you’re probably surrounded by urine. Sorry, guys, nature is gross.
The team’s findings were published in The Science of Nature.