Imagine if you relied on your body odours to keep intruders away from your home. You’d want to do what you could to up the stink factor, right? For the lemurs of Madagascar, stenching up their aromas is just a matter of mixing the right smells.

Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) possess two sets of scent glands: a pair on their wrists that produce a clear, fast-evaporating fluid, and a pair on their chest that produce a brown, pungent paste. Male lemurs use these fragrant secretions to mark their territories and deter rival males. They are also used more directly in the aptly named ‘stink fights’, where the lemurs coat their tails in a combined mixture of these secretions and wave them around in an attempt to out-stink each other.

A team of researchers, led by Christine Drea from Duke University, recently discovered that these ring-tailed lemurs prefer to mix together the two different bodily scents to produce a stronger and longer lasting fragrance.

The researchers presented male lemurs with wooden rods that were coated with either pure or mixed scent secretions, and then presented these rods after being left for 12 hours, in order to test the effect of dried and evaporated fragrances.

Dr Drea and her team found that the lemurs spent more time investigating the mixed secretion rods compared to the pure secretions. Interestingly, they spent even longer investigating the rods that had been dried for 12 hours, and even began licking them when a strong sniff wasn’t enough.

The team believes that blending together different secretions increases the molecular complexity of the fragrance. “Like blending perfumes with complementary notes, blending secretions may increase the amount of information conveyed by a single dab of scent” said Dr Drea. They suggest that this serves as a stronger warning signal than each scent on its own.

The mixture of wrist and chest secretions may also increase the staying power of the scents. The particularly pungent chest secretions contain a chemical called squalene, which is used in perfumes and skincare products as a preservative.

“The longer-lasting mixtures that result may send a signal to males from other groups, who may not wander by a scent-marked tree or sapling until days later”, added the researchers.

Lemurs aren’t alone in combining bodily oozes to ward others away. Brown hyenas (Parahyaena brunnea) mix two anal-gland secretions to produce a chemically complex marking paste, and many other mammal species rely on mixtures of urine, faeces and saliva to generate their own smelly safeguards.

I think I’ll stick with Chanel, thanks.


Lydia Greene, Kathleen Grogan, Kendra Smyth, Christine Adams, Skylar Klager and Christine Drea. Mix It and Fix It: Functions of Composite Olfactory Signals in Ring-Tailed Lemurs. Royal Society Open Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160076


Discover the story behind the research through the scientist’s eyes, subscribe to Biosphere digital magazine for access to in-depth articles that bring the natural world to life.