If you think the smell of Axe is bad, be glad you’re not a lemur. In a study led by Amber D. Walker-Bolton, a UTSC professor in the Department of Anthropology, researchers found that male ring-tailed lemurs use their ‘stink’ to impress potential mates.
This unique behaviour allows lemurs to display their rank among other males and attract suitable mates, albeit at a cost.
Lemurs belong to the Strepsirrhine sub order and live in male groups that have a core female lineage. Each of these groups have dominant central males and periphery males, where rank is correlated with age.
‘Stink-flirting’ refers to male display of tail anointing and wafting, which is considered “a submissive display prior to a close approach.” The study found these displays are associated with male dominance and that they are reciprocated by females. Females preferred the exaggerated displays and are said to set the male apart from the rest of the population.
Additionally, the study found females showed a preference for dominant resident males as opposed to lower-ranking immigrant males. Immigrants are rarely found mating with females of the group.
Surprisingly, male lemurs are more frequently faced with aggression from both females and other males when they perform stink-flirting displays compared to other mating rituals. Only when females in estrus were receiving the olfactory display would they then mate.
Some of the females are also mate-guarded by a male. These guarded females were found to receive a higher rate of displays than non-guarded females. Although mate-guarding doesn’t completely eliminate displays from other males, it hinders approach to guarded females.
While the majority of females chose the most dominant mate, the opposite was not the case. According to the study, male ring-tailed lemurs did not “preferentially target high-ranked females for olfactory displays.”
In the future, Walker-Bolton’s team hopes to study the correlation between ‘stink-flirting’ and reproductive success.