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Decaying turtle or vulture vomit? Here are the worst smells in the world, according to scientists

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Field scientists spend months around muck, slime, and dead things — and these are the worst things they’ve smelled

Scientists on Twitter have been working long and hard to answer one of the universe’s million-dollar questions: what is the worst smell in the world?

The fierce Twitter debate was fueled by reptile and amphibian expert David Steen. In March, he suggested that researchers “RT if you’re a field biologist and you’ve ever asked yourself, ‘Why do I smell bad?’” One of his Twitter followers refreshed the subject recently, asking: “What’s the worst thing you’ve smelled in the course of your work?”

We at Verge Science are very familiar with terrible smells — like the cheese-tinged death-stench unleashed by science editor Liz Lopatto’s cyst. In fact, there’s a vast world of malodors out there, but the online discussion revealed a few clear contenders: dead things, bodily effluvia, and anything having to do with fish. So, I conducted a highly scientific and rigorous analysis of the responses, and I’m ready to call a clear winner in this social media game of one-upmanship. The worst smell in the world? It’s dead turtles.

Even just thinking about a hot, decaying, dead turtle makes me gag. See, Steen works with reptiles, which stink even when they’re alive. So if he says a dead reptile stinks, it reeks. Add in the warm, moist Georgia air and there is nothing okay about this scenario.

We don’t have to take Steen’s word for it, either. Wildlife biologist David Syzdek and graduate student Kathryn Wedemeyer-Strombel both agree:

I mean, just imagine the odor wafting from an oven filled with dead sea creatures in digestive enzymes. It’s horrifying.

There was stiff competition, though, from the several strong (and dead) runners up:

Weasels have little anal sacks that hold an oily liquid they squirt out in self defense. Add in the fact that this weasel was dead, recently defrosted, and the room was small, warm, and stuffy, and this stink is up there with the worst I can imagine.

Then we have bag full of multiple dead frogs, carried — for some unspeakable reason — on a train. (Think of your fellow passengers, you monster!)

This dead creature was so big that it needed a tractor to lift it. Plus it had been decaying for six weeks. But, the clothes in these photos tell me that it wasn’t very warm out, and it’s out in the fresh air. So this one doesn’t get bonus points for temperature-heightened pungency.

The honorable mentions go to contestants that are both stinky and slimy — a treat for all senses:

The worst thing I’ve ever smelled was during a beach outing in California’s Half Moon Bay. A dead whale calf had washed into a little cove, with bits of flesh and fat still floating around its skeleton. It reeked. But the worst stench came from the dead seabirds lying crumpled and decaying on the beach nearby, with little flies buzzing around them. I don’t know what caused the big die-off, but the end result was a massive stinkfest.

Unlike these scientists, though, I didn’t have the wherewithal to snap a photo of the terrible stink. And as bad as it smelled, I couldn’t stop myself from experimentally testing the wind. With each sniff, the answer was the same: yup, still stinks.