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Ring-tailed lemurs ‘stink flirt’ (it’s not as bad as it sounds)

  • During the mating season, male ring-tailed lemurs rub secretions from glands on their wrists onto their tails and wave them at female lemurs.
  • These chemical secretions, identified by researchers at the University of Tokyo, have emerged as the first pheromone candidates to be identified in a primate.
  • Pheromones, chemical compounds that animals secrete, can signal more than sexual availability; they can also communicate danger or mark trails.
  • For the ring-tailed lemur secretions be recognized as real sex pheromones, the scientists will have to show that they are used to communicate only within the species and that they influence mating behavior.

Waving a stinky tail in a potential partner’s face may sound like a bizarre way to attract a mate, but scientists believe this is what male ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) do to capture the attention of females.

During the mating season, the males rub secretions from glands on their wrists onto their tails and wave them at females. “Using detailed chemical analysis, we identified three compounds responsible for this scent, and this is the first time that pheromone candidates were identified in a primate,” Kazushige Touhara, who co-authored a paper about the compounds published today in Current Biology, told Mongabay.

Pheromones, chemicals that animals produce to signal to other members of their species, have remained a mystery to scientists for a long time. Lemurs are primates endemic to Madagascar. Even for well-studied and widely dispersed primates, like humans, little is known about how they use these olfactory cues or what compounds the cues are made of.

The researchers analyzed samples of the scent they obtained from lemurs housed at the Japan Monkey Center in Aichi and the Research Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Tokyo.

They found that the “natural cologne” of male ring-tailed lemurs, high on testosterone during the breeding season, is rich in three compounds that attracted females: dodecanal, 12-methyl tridecanal, and tetradecanal. Many animal pheromones smell “terrible” or “animalic” to humans, Touhara, a researcher at the University of Tokyo, said. But this particular lemur scent belies that stinky reputation because, as the scientists found out, the lemur cologne had a fruity, floral smell, not unlike the aroma of a pear.

The first time scientists identified the chemical signature of a pheromone was way back in 1959, by the German chemist and Nobel laureate Adolf Butenandt and his team. In recent years, as the technology for deciphering the chemical composition of various substances has advanced, the world of pheromones has revealed itself to nosy scientists.

Animals as diverse as fish, mice and moths deploy pheromones. The secretions can signal more than sexual availability; they can also communicate danger or mark trails. Unsurprisingly, many species of ants are known to use these olfactory breadcrumbs to find food.

But to be recognized as a real pheromone, an odor can only be used to influence behavior in a particular species. The researchers are yet to prove this for the ring-tailed lemur compounds. And to classify as a sex pheromone, the odor must demonstrably impact mating behavior. At the moment, it is not clear whether the interest displayed by the female lemurs actually converts into better chances of mating.

“We do not know what the attraction means for lemurs,” Touhara said. “It is true that females are interested in the odors, but we do [not] know whether the interest brings higher mating chance.”

While most of the secrets of pheromones in humans are yet to be sniffed out, some are known. If you find a new mother reveling in the smell of her baby’s head, it’s pheromones at work!

Banner image: A male ring-tailed lemur. Image by Chigusa Tanaka/Japan Monkey Centre

Citation:

Shirasu, M. et al. (2020). Key male glandular odorants attracting female ring-tailed lemurs. Current Biology, 30, 1-8. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.03.037

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