How do I love thee? Let me smell the ways.

Love is in the air – quite literally – in the lemur world. A new study has found that the strength of sifaka bonds is reflected by the similarity of their scent signals.

Yes, it’s all about chemistry.

Sifaka Love

Researchers from Duke University collected samples of odorants from the genital glands of Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli) across different phases of the reproductive season and used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to study the chemical composition of these secretions to see if they contain information that could potentially give insight to the nature of sifaka relationships. They predicted that strongly bonded pairs would exhibit more similar chemical profiles than would weakly bonded pairs.

As it turns out, sifakas do express chemically rich scent signals that reveal the sex of the signaler and if the signal happened to be from a female, the signal could also indicate her fertility! We can only imagine how important this little piece of information could be for coordinating reproduction.

But how important is it really? Does this mean sifakas just go around all day sniffing each other to find love?

To further understand genital scent marking behaviors in this species, researchers observed the olfactory behavior of sifaka pairs, noting things such as frequencies of sniffing and licking deposited scent marks and frequencies of genital and urine marking across the breeding season.

They found that these lemurs sync up to their partner’s scent marking behavior and spend more time doing so when in newly established and or reproductively unsuccessful bonds. Strongly bonded or reproductively successful sifaka pairs, on the other hand, spend less time and energy investing in olfactory signaling behaviors. More interestingly, these long-established pairs start to even smell more like each other!

Coordinated scent marking between sifaka mates could have some perks- it could function to jointly defend territories or to advertise the pair’s association. It could be the equivalent of posting ones new relationship status on facebook in the human world, perhaps.

This study provides the “first evidence that the strength of a social bond can be reflected in the signaler’s olfactory behavior and potentially also in the chemistry of its scent signals”. Although little is known about the mechanisms behind such olfactory signaling or its evolutionary implications, this work is a nice reminder for us to stop and appreciate just how much complexity goes on not just in other species’ (olfactory) communication systems, but in their love lives as well.

Watch sifakas dance here!

Greene, L. K., & Drea, C. M. (2014). Love is in the air: sociality and pair bondedness influence sifaka reproductive signalling. Animal Behaviour, 88, 147–156. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.11.019

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