Microbes help hyenas send status updates

Glands in a pouch under a hyena’s tail create informative scents, though the ultimate perfumers may not be the hyenas themselves.

Courtesy of Kay E. Holekamp

Guest post by Susan Milius

The scent of a hyena may actually come from its microbes.

Both striped and spotted hyenas rub lumpy structures under their tails against grass stalks and other convenient sign posts where passersby can sniff out status updates.

Whether the microbes teeming in the leftover rubbings, called paste, could give these or any other mammal scent marks reliably distinctive smells has been a matter of discussion among biologists since the 1970s. Now high-powered genetic techniques for identifying who’s who in multitudinous microbial communities shows some consistent differences for hyena paste, says Kevin Theis of Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Both the microbial residents and their funky fumes differ consistently between striped and spotted species, Theis and his colleagues report November 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers also detected some finer-scale differences, including between males migrating into a clan and pregnant females.

To Theis’ nose, the paste smells like “mulch that’s been rained on and is starting to ferment.”

More Stories from Science News on Microbes

From the Nature Index

Paid Content