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Would it be possible for humans to use some combination of soap, lotion, perfume/cologne, etc to deter most predators from eating you by virtue of your smell and taste? After all plenty of other species protect themselves by smelling and tasting bad, so why can't it work for humans?

Assume that these large predators have preferences that are typical for large predatory mammals, birds and less frequently reptiles that exist in real life.

Obviously if the predator doesn't care what you smell or taste like this strategy shouldn't work, but I doubt that will describe the most important land predators (no clue if a croc would care what you tasted like). Similarly creatures that kill people for motivations other than hunger aren't what this question is about.

Assume enough long distance trade that spices are comparatively cheap. Also don't presume any modern chemistry is available.

Ideally this tactic should be tolerable to smell for the people employing it.

Other reasonable tactics for protection are already being used. For instance people will have tried wearing masks on the back of their head. Like the tiger attacks in the Sundarbans however, the predators tend to quickly learn those sorts of tricks (I imagine there'd be a similar issue with predators learning how to take out people wearing say neck armor as well).

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    $\begingroup$ Seems highly dependent on the predator and the scent. In other words if that’s how you want it to work in your world then in your world it’s feasible. I’m unsure what you need our help with. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented May 30 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings Realized people are going to interpret DND to potentially include literally any conceivable predator instead of just the most common DND monsters most people would have to worry about in a standard setting. So I explicitly laid out the range of predators being considered. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ You'll likely run afoul of an unwritten rule of this stack. Your edit invalidated an existing answer. However, let's let it roll and see what happens. Note that you've fundamentally answered your own question. We would pull examples of critters that exude a horrible stink (e.g. stink bugs) to rationalize the idea. You've already done that. Keep in mind that while your goal might be "as real as possible," our goal is suspension of disbelief. You're good to go - but it's gotta really stink. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ "Tasting bad" is not a great defence. You still get munched; it just means that both you and the predator have a bad day. $\endgroup$
    – avid
    Commented May 30 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Avid Tasting bad is a good defense for the species if not for one individual. A predator won't wish to repeat the experience! Over generations, learned avoidance becomes instinctive. It's so effective for yellow-and-black insects that there are numerous fakes with the same coloration. Also most predators avoid hunting people. They haven't established what happens if they do. They just instinctively don't, because the ones that did, we tracked down and killed. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented May 30 at 16:30

6 Answers 6

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Yes, you just have to smell and taste like something toxic. I also suggest warning markings.

The natural kingdom is full of such things, it's also full of fakes. The terms you're looking for are Aposematism and Batesian mimicry, respectively being the warning colours for being poisonous or aggressive and the fine art of faking it.

Basically if you look like a honey badger it might work but you also need to be able to fight like a honey badger, as most predators, especially the young ones who are yet to learn, will still try and have a go.

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    $\begingroup$ "Faking it", i.e. a harmless organism looking like a harmful one, is Batesian mimicry. Müllerian mimicry is when multiple harmful organisms share the same appearance, and so reinforce one another's honest signals. $\endgroup$
    – Olle
    Commented May 30 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ There's also the issue of the initial bite still being capable of killing you. Being spat out after being bitten to death doesn't help anyone. I'd go for the scent tactic and make it potent. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Parrotmaster It won't help you, but it will help the next guy that looks like you. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 31 at 18:40
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Frame Challenge

This depends on how effective you mean your deterrence to be.

Now - You can have smells that will at range deter a predator - strong musks of a larger predator for example.

The issue is that for a younger predator animal, with plentiful food - the Risk/Benefit analysis is easy:

'Nah bro, can't be arsed to take on that Veloci-saurous smelling animal, I am full and the Gazelles are delicious'

However, for the older Predator who is starving because they can no longer hunt properly:

'I am pretty much dead already - Stuff it, this Veloci-Saurous is moving well slow and I could... Wait a minute! That isn't a Veloci-Saurous! That looks like one of those squishy humans!'

And as you rightly pointed out - Predators are really smart at figuring things out - the example I remember was in Africa where migrating human travellers would bang pots and pans to scare off the Animals... Until the Animals realized that Pots and Pans meant Women, Children and Old people = Easy Lunch.

This all leads to my Frame Challenge:

A Deterrent is only a Deterrent if it can follow through

What do I mean by this? Well - Simple - you point a gun at me, I am scared I might get shot and I am more likely to do what you want to do in fear of getting shot.

The moment I realize that it is not a real gun but a BB gun, all the power of the Deterrent evaporates.

Unless the Deterrent is backed up by the ability to inflict Lethal Force - it's shelf life as a Deterrence is limited

Think about going out into Bear Country with a Shotgun or Rifle - you can fire a warning shot at a Charging Bear - and the Bear might stop the charge. What happens when the Bear doesn't stop the charge? If you shoot the Bear dead, the Bear is no longer a problem. If you shoot the Bear and wound the Bear - it knows that Big Bang sticks = ouchie. If you don't shoot the Bear - the Bear learns that the loud noises and smoke are all for show and at that moment it ceases to be a Deterrent

And so any combination of Chemicals and Spices that are not able to render a lethal effect on the Bear are going to have limited use.

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  • $\begingroup$ "so any combination of Chemicals and Spices that are not able to render a lethal effect on the Bear are going to have limited use." Are you saying that a bear won't be put off by any unpleasant smell or taste? People put bitter spray on stuff to get pets not to chew them, why or why wouldn't this work applied to a person? $\endgroup$ Commented May 30 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ @VakusDrake - You ever seen a dog eat its own Vomit? A Hungry animal will eat just about another for Calories - rotting carcasses, for example. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ I mean a dog will eat vomit whether it's hungry or not, and similarly don't scavenging animals like rotting meat? Starving animals don't just eat a bunch of rocks or other stuff they can't digest do they? $\endgroup$ Commented May 30 at 7:48
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    $\begingroup$ Our point about deterrent being limited is necessarily true. By mimicking something that actually is poisonous, you make it a game of odds as to whether this is a poisonous one or not, something more predators won't chance. If you saw a mimick gun, and knew it might be mimick or real, would you chance a 20% chance of it being real? $\endgroup$
    – Bubbles
    Commented May 30 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ Plenty of animals — predators included — already run from humans when they hear or smell us. Humans = sharp pointy sticks, guns, and death. The scent itself isn't "bad" but the scent is a sign that death quickly follows. The animal just needs to make that association. This already happens in real life. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30 at 21:52
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I'm not sure it'd be possible. For this to work it's fundamental that:

a) The odor and taste you are imitating is the same as that of something that it's very dangerous for the predator to eat.

This is how it works in nature. Foul smells mean irritants, foul tastes mean poison, both of these are dangerous and could cause serious trouble to the predator. It's not the smell or taste alone, it's what that smell or taste means. If you just cover yourself in a weird smell, the best you can hope for is that the predator won't instantly clock that you're yummy and won't immediately start tracking you, but it won't do anything to make said predator actively avoid you.

b) Every single human encountered by that predator smells and tastes that way.

Well, maybe not every single human, but definitely most of them. These survival strategies work at scale and require that some number of the individuals are sacrificed so the predator species learn their lesson. You are not protected by being poisonous, your species is. And humans wouldn't even be the actually dangerous creature here, they'd be just mimics.

Mimicry works by being virtually indistinguishable from danger, but in this scenario humans will not look or move or sound like danger, they will only smell and taste like it. It is imperative then that the predator species doesn't get a chance to learn "human sometimes smells and tastes like a murder-skunk, but I can kill it and eat without problems".

If that comes to pass, these people are at a point where "tasting bad" is only a viable strategy if the taste is so bad that induces vomit on the predator to make it physically unable to eat you, which is just another way to say "being poisonous".

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Humans actually do smell and taste bad to most predators

Hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection has taught most predators to be scent and flavor adverse to eating humans. The same way humans instinctively want nothing to do with snakes or spiders, most animals want nothing to do with humans because hunting us leads to being eliminated from the gene pool; so, as long as you haven't bathed too recently, most wild animals will not want to eat you unless they are absolutely starving.

On top of that, a lot of common human foods are naturally toxic to most other organisms. Onion, Garlic, Peppers, Cloves, etc. are all very toxic to a lot of animals, and they tend to wholly avoid areas where these things grow. When it comes to these common foods, you don't even need long trade routes to get spices from distant lands since there is at least one toxic/repulsive spice that grows in practically every climate that humans can consume. So, if you just grow some onions in the garden around your home, that alone will be enough to keep most other animals away.

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Sort of. You need two ingredients.

1: an apex predator that effectively and regularly kills the predator you want to deter

2: the smell of that apex predator

By a combination of naturally-selecting for those individuals most averse to the apex predator and whatever mysterious mechanisms animals have for passing on learned behavior to their young, after a few predator generations have passed, the remaining predator population will associate the smell of that predator with an imminent deadly threat, and will generally leave the area without ever being detected by the potential victim. It's not a guarantee, but the odds are pretty good.

Since humans are really good at killing things and are usually only in danger from the largest predators in a region, the easiest way in real life to get both of these is to be the apex predator that effectively and regularly kills the predator you want to deter. This has the double benefit of saving you the trouble of getting the smell of the apex predator and exterminating most of the predators near your village.

Since it's a fantasy setting, however, there may be other apex predators that are more dangerous - but more rare or more easily deterred - than tigers. Perhaps your adventurers are sent on a mission to steal the molted feathers from the nests of the Murderdeath Bird, a 20-meter-long giant killer parakeet that loves to eat tigers, but is terrified of fire. If the adventurers return uneaten, can distil it into a potent Stinky Murderdeath Perfume and make tigers avoid us because they're afraid of Murderdeath Birds.

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Nothing tastes objectively awful. Taste is a matter of, well, taste.

Creatures may treat some taste or smell as bad, and may even obey avoidance overwhelmingly. But variation in behavior is common in life. While you might taste or smell bad, you are also made of meat and flesh and move like an animal. So the predator, put off by the taste and smell, might still try a nibble.

Repeat often enough and the predator will develop a "taste" for the horrible smell and taste - they get food, the food makes them full, yum. I mean, people eat some really stinky cheese.

Many predators teach their offspring. So they'll train their offspring to hunt the strong stink, and eat the "foul" tasting food. Those that (through natural variation) find it less foul are taught easier and flourish.

And now you have predators who love that "awful" smell and taste.

The way you get around this is you tie the smell and taste to danger. You make adapting to liking to eat things that smell and taste like that a poor reproduction strategy.

We do this in the real world by hunting and killing wild animals that eat humans with extreme prejudice. Even ones in captivity. The remaining animals are selected for not wanting to eat things that smell and act like humans.

As we prefer this happening before they bite a chunk off us, the selection pressure on taste isn't super strong; but even there, if a creature bites a human and flees, we'll hunt it down less aggressively than if it swallowed the human as we want to get the remains back.

This selection pressure can be a number of ways. We can just hunt and shoot animals who violate the avoidance scent. We could use a scent that aligns with others things the creature avoids, like poisonous animals or dangerous predators. We could lace humans with a poison that kills the animal who eats them (don't laugh; we do this to insects).

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing tastes objectively awful? Skunks seem pretty confident that just about everything agrees that their spray stinks to high heaven. Nintendo Switch cartridges are coated in denatonium benzoate to taste horrible to virtually all humans. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Commented May 31 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @prosfilaes Owls don't mind. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Jun 1 at 16:04

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