Oh yeah? Smell this! or, Conflict resolution, lemur-style

Like most animals, lemurs compete with each other for scarce resources such as territory, food and reproductive mates. While sometimes this type of squabble is resolved by fighting, sharp teeth and claws can result in serious injuries to one or both participants.

Ringtail lemurs live in large social groups of 20 – 30 individuals in the wild, and during the breeding season, there is a lot of competition between the males to breed with the females. They have a useful way of resolving conflicts that doesn’t involve the risk of injury – the Stink Fight.

Male ringtails have scent glands on their wrists and shoulders. The wrist gland produces a volatile, short-lived odor, while the shoulder gland produces a brown toothpaste-like substance, which is much longer lasting. A stink fight begins when two male lemurs face off and pull their tails through these two glands, then wave or flick their tails at each other, to waft their “fragrance” towards their rival. Stink fights last until one lemur backs off, and can be resolved fairly quickly, but these smelly stand-offs have also been reported to last up to an hour.

Stink fights are not just for breeding season though, and not just for other lemurs. Researcher Katie Grogan places wooden poles smeared with grape jelly or lemur odors into lemur enclosures in order to determine if a lemur prefers the scent of one lemur over another, and she is used to the lemurs scent- marking the poles. She realised the extent of the possessive feelings of one male lemur, however, when he stink fought her as she tried to take a pole out of his enclosure. Sadly for the lemur, and probably luckily for Katie, the human sense of smell is not sensitive enough to detect the odor!

Author: Mel Norris, DLC Volunteer

March 16, 2012