SCIENCE

Bearcats Smell Like Buttered Popcorn, And Scientists Say They Now Know Why

Hint: It’s not as "a-pee-ling" as you’d like.
Scientists say they've solved why bearcats, or bintorongs, smell like hot popcorn. Apparently, it's a chemical in their urine
Scientists say they've solved why bearcats, or bintorongs, smell like hot popcorn. Apparently, it's a chemical in their urine.

Apparently scent isn’t always the best guide of what to eat - after all, bearcat pee smells like hot buttered popcorn. No joke. 

Scientists say they’ve solved the mystery of why the Southeast Asian mammals emit an odor resembling a tasty snack. They've also figured out that the smell is not coming from the scent glands under their tails as previously thought.

As it turns out, the animals’ urine contains the exact same aroma compound that’s found in certain foods, like the mouthwatering snack.

In a study, published online last week and to be printed in the June 2016 edition of the journal The Science of Nature – Naturwissenschaften, researchers at Duke University say they collected urine samples from 33 bearcats, also known as binturongs, that reside at a North Carolina wildlife sanctuary. 

In each sample, the researchers identified 29 chemical compounds, one of which is 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, or 2-AP.

Yum! Scientists say bearcats' urine contains the same chemical compound found in hot foods like popcorn, which gives it its a
Yum! Scientists say bearcats' urine contains the same chemical compound found in hot foods like popcorn, which gives it its appetizing scent.

According to the university’s press release, 2-AP forms naturally in foods like popcorn, rice and bread when exposed to high heat. This chemical reaction, specifically between sugars and amino acids, is called the Maillard reaction.

"If you were to make this compound, you would have to use temperatures above what most animals can achieve physiologically," said Christine Drea, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke who led the study. "How does this animal make a cooking smell, but without cooking?"

Researchers say they believe bacteria and other microorganisms found in the animals' skin, fur or gut are to blame. Drea said humans experience a similar process when bacteria breaks down sweat in our armpits. It's just not as pleasant to smell.

The Carolina Tiger Rescue sanctuary, where the bearcats were studied, identifies the animals' scent glands as the source for the smell on their website.

But Duke researchers say these scent glands do not contain the popcorn-scented compounds.

Bearcats, also known as binturong, mark their territory with this appetizing urine.
Bearcats, also known as binturong, mark their territory with this appetizing urine.

Like other animals, the bearcats use their urine to mark their territory and attract mates. The four-legged animals soak their feet and bushy tails while urinating in a squatting position. They then spread the strong odor by walking around and dragging their tails behind them, the university states.

Lydia Greene, a researcher and grad student at Duke University, said the study is useful in determining the animal's location and even gender with male bearcats' urine tending to contain more 2-AP than females.

"The fact that the compound was in every binturong we studied, and at relatively high concentrations, means it could be a signal that says, 'A binturong was here,' and whether it was male or female," she said.

Movie theaters, please don’t get any smelly funny ideas.

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