Pheromone identified in ‘stink flirting’ lemurs

Lemurs woo mates with the first pheromone to be identified from a primate.

A ring-tailed lemur troop at Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar. © Anup Shah/Getty

Some say it with flowers, while others use flashy plumage, athletic prowess or vocal gymnastics. The ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar attract mates with a sticky fluid that smells like a mixture of pears and well- hung meat.

And now, biologists have found that this potent concoction contains the first pheromone known from a primate.

Ring-tailed lemurs employ a unique courtship routine known as ‘stink flirting’. The males of the species exude an aromatic secretion from glands on their wrists, which they apply to their fluffy tails and waft at potential mates.

These secretions have long been suspected of containing pheromones – chemical compounds released by one individual of a species to influence the behaviour of another. Though they are used widely among insects to attract mates and are also produced by mice, pheromones have proved elusive in primates.

Now, Japanese biologists have identified at least one, and perhaps three, compounds from the secretions that attract the attention of females.

“The key odour component, 12-methyltridecanal, smells fruity and floral, like a pear, and is also reminiscent of the aroma of aged meat,” says Kazushige Touhara of the University of Tokyo.

Ring-tailed lemurs in Isalo National Park, Madagascar. © Paul Souders/Getty
Ring-tailed lemurs in Isalo National Park, Madagascar. © Paul Souders/Getty

Touhara’s team found that purified extractions of the compounds were enough to engage female interest. The biologists also showed that the compounds are more abundant in the secretions during the species’ breeding season.

It’s not yet known whether higher pheromone production translates into greater mating success for the signalling males. “We must now look more closely at how females’ behaviour changes after having a sniff,” says Touhara.

He adds that these compounds may prove useful to efforts to conserve these endangered primates, if they can be used to increase reproductive rates.

It might yet turn out that humans employ pheromones, too. But Touhara is sceptical. “There are probably crucial odours that affect each other’s emotions,” he says. “The smell of babies’ heads make parents feel happy, for example, and females’ underarm odours affect males’ emotions.”

However, he suspects that these odours have more to do with individual preferences than with a specific communication system between members of the species.

Read the paper in Current Biology


Main image: A ring-tailed lemur troop at Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar. © Anup Shah/Getty

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