Lemurs in Love Take on the Same Smell

Forget his n’ hers watches this Valentine’s Day: A species of lemur prefers a set of matching scents.

In a move that can only make master perfumers green with envy, pairs of Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) that have mated and produced offspring alter their natural scents to smell alike.

Photo of two Coquerel's Sifaka lemurs on a bamboo stem.
Two Coquerel’s sifaka lemurs sit on a bamboo stem inside Lemurs Park in Madagascar in 2006. Photograph by Radu Sigheti, Reuters/Corbis

Primatologists at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, believe these synced scents serve to advertise the pair’s exclusive status.

Coquerel’s sifakas, like all lemurs, are native to the island of Madagascar. Living in the arid regions of extreme northern Madagascar, these long-tailed animals spend much of their time in trees, foraging for flowers, leaves, fruit, and bark. (Also see “Pictures: New Head-Bobbing Lemur Found in Madagascar?“)

Coquerel’s sifakas have a complex matriarchal culture, with females controlling access to food, and the animals use chemical signals to communicate with each other.

Scent glands on their throats and genitals produce an oily, sticky substance that the animals rub on trees and branches, their chemical contents communicating everything from age to health to relationship status.

Love Is in the Air

Duke primatologists Lydia Greene and Christine Drea wanted to know how these smells and scent-marking behaviors changed throughout the reproductive cycle.

Using cotton swabs, Greene and Drea sampled the sifakas’ smelly goo, both from the trees they had rubbed and directly from their scent glands. The team tracked eight males and seven females at different points throughout the reproductive season, and measured how frequently six pairs of sifakas engaged in scent-marking or sniffing behaviors.

In the February issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, the team reported that each sifaka mirrored the scent-marking behaviors of the other member of its pair. For instance, when one sifaka increased the amount of scent it rubbed around, the other sifaka also increased this activity. (See National Geographic’s pictures of animal pairs.)

The researchers say that this is likely part of a “getting to know you” routine. It could also help provide clues about when the female is in heat and ready to mate.

Smelly “Duet”

When baby makes three, the sifakas spend less time scent-marking, but this could be because they don’t have to.

That’s because the process of mating and caring for an infant seems to have allowed the sifakas’ scents to mingle: Pairs of sifakas that had produced offspring smelled significantly more like each other than pairs of sifakas that hadn’t reproduced. (Also see “Animal Valentines: 5 of Nature’s Best Flirters.”)

It didn’t seem to matter how long the sifakas had been together. Sifaka pairs with a new infant smelled just as much alike as older pairs that had been together for longer periods of time.

“It’s like singing a duet, but with smells instead of sounds,” Drea said in a statement.

The researchers still aren’t sure why the sifakas match their scents, but they believe it’s a way of signaling to other sifakas that the couple is an established pair, and to mark their territory.

I think I’ll stick with roses and chocolate, though.

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Meet the Author
Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com