Biologists deciphering complex lemur scent language

DURHAM, N.C. — A "stink fight" between ring-tailed lemurs might be dead serious to them. But to observers, the scented struggle ranks among the more odd, even comical sights at the Duke University Primate Center — already renowned for the biological eccentricities of its exotic denizens http://www.duke.edu/web/primate/FlashFiles/dukeNew19.html .

Preparations for battle begin when male combatants load their "weapons" — vigorously rubbing their tails against their shoulders and between their wrists, infusing the fur with scent from glands there.

So armed — or tailed — they launch their attacks, feathery tails arched over their backs, ears flattened and squeaking warnings. They relentlessly flick their tails at one another until one of the adversaries comes to his scentses, gets the odiferous message and retreats.

But until the research of Duke biologist Christine Drea and student Elizabeth Scordato, scientists had no idea what chemical messages were being wafted back and forth in such fights. More broadly, they have not understood the complex "language" of multiple scents that lemurs use to communicate a variety of messages from aggression to mating receptiveness.

In fact, until Drea and Scordato began their studies, scientists didn't even appreciate that ringtails, and perhaps other lemurs, may well have the richest scent language of any primates. They may communicate not just individual chemical words, but in essence, "scentences" — combinations of scents that extend the animals' chemical communications repertoire.

The scientists' studies — in which they are assiduously sampling and analyzing lemur scents and testing behavioral responses to those scents — were inspired by Drea's continuing research on olfacto

Contact: Dennis Meredith
Duke University

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