Animals communicate with one another using a plethora of signals: tropical fish use neon technicolour, songbirds tweet sweet melodies and gorillas, new research has shown, may communicate using social odour cues.
Using chemosensory information, such as scent, to convey a message is a universal ability of all living things. Bacteria aggregate together using chemical cues, and everything from beetles to humans are thought to involve chemical signaling in courtship and sexual reproduction.
However, these cues aren’t true examples of social information because they’re not intended to influence the behaviour of other individuals. For example, a female fruit fly will emit a sex hormone to announce her willingness to mate regardless of whether males are nearby; the odour is merely an advertisement.
That’s where gorillas are different. Michelle Klailova, from the University of Stirling, has found that silverback gorillas modify their odour emissions in the presence of other group members, which results in changes in social behaviour. What’s more, gorillas will alter the intensity of their odour messages depending on the social context. For example, more intense odours are released in events of anger or stress.
But why use odours to communicate? Klailova suggests this form of communication is particularly useful in Central African forests, where limited visibility drives the need to rely on other senses.
“No study has yet investigated the presence and extent to which chemo-communication may moderate behaviour in non-human great apes,” Klailova says. “We provide crucial ancestral links to human chemo-signaling, bridge the gap between Old World monkey and human chemo-communication, and offer compelling evidence that olfactory communication in hominoids is much more important than traditionally thought.”
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