Sense of Taste

The papillae that house the taste buds can be easily seen with the addition of a little blue food coloring to a tongue.

After a short bout with what I suspect was COVID-19 at the end of July, my sense of taste is slowly returning. It comes in shadows and hints and most days I still can’t taste anything, but I am improving. Losing the sense of taste has been a revealing experience. At times I could almost make myself taste something because my brain remembered what it tasted like. I found that I could still tell sweet and salty, just not flavor. Texture of food also plays an incredibly important part in what I think something tastes like.

Our ability to taste comes from receptors on the tongue called taste buds. We have around 8,000 of them and each one is made up of a bundle of up to 150 taste receptors. Our taste buds can detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami, often called the savory taste bud, that recognizes the taste of amino acids such as meat and cheese. Taste buds are short-lived, being replaced about every 10 days.

I got to wondering about animals though and their sense of taste. As it turns out, all animals have taste buds, even single cell organisms. All vertebrates have tongues and that is where most vertebrates sense taste. However, that may not be the only places where taste buds occur, even in vertebrates. Humans may have taste buds in the cheeks, roof of the mouth or even the throat.

The animal with the most taste buds is the humble catfish. A large one may have 175,000 taste buds and they are scattered across the tongue, the barbells or “whiskers” and down the sides of the fish. Flies have taste buds in their feet and proboscis.

My question was, do animals taste things in the same way that we do? That is obviously a difficult question to answer, but research indicates that taste buds across species operate in much the same way, leading to the conclusion that taste might be similar. Huckleberries might taste the same to us as they do to a bear—or not. Comparative physiologists have cautioned that this might be over simplification. It is likely better to consider that each species lives in its own “taste world” where things taste good or bad but not necessarily the way humans taste them. This is even true at the individual level. I have a son who dislikes the flavor of watermelon yet it is one of my favorite fruits.

It would seem plausible that animals that tend to swallow prey whole would have fewer taste buds. Studies have born this out. Birds, for instance, have fewer taste buds and do not have the ability to taste sweet (cats can’t taste sweetness either and that explains a lot about cats). That leads to the question of nectar feeding birds. For these birds, in a sort of retrofit, other receptors have been repurposed, allowing them to detect simple sugars.

Incidentally, the animal with the fewest taste buds happens to be a bird: the lowly chicken has only 24. Mammals that have returned to the sea have also been shown to have fewer taste buds.   

In reality, taste, like colorful autumn leaves, is really not there just for pleasure. It is one way for animals (and humans) to quickly determine what is edible and what is not. That is why herbivores have more taste buds than carnivores. The herbivore needs more taste buds in order to determine what is food and what is poison (often detected through the taste buds that sense bitter flavors). Taste is very plastic indeed, as different animals develop different tastes based on their particular needs.

Taste is a wonderful sensation, but when it comes to manners and dress, my wife has often told me that my taste is all in my mouth. I guess I am hopeless then, because for the next little while, even that won’t be true.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho