, Volume 58, Issue 5, pp 437-445
Date: 19 May 2005

The neglected scent: on the marking function of urine in Lemur catta

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In ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) urine deposition can be combined with two different tail configurations: (i) tail held up in an evident display (urinate tail-up, UT-up); (ii) tail slightly raised to avoid its impregnation with urine (urinate tail-down, UT-down). We used both signaller- and receiver-based approaches to search for functional differences between these two kinds of urine deposition. We predicted that UT-up might be a complex signal combining olfactory and visual cues. We carried out observations and scent tests on four captive groups of ring-tailed lemurs. Group members sniffed/licked UT-up scents more frequently than UT-down ones. Moreover, UT-up showed peak levels during the mating season whereas UT-down did not. These findings suggest that urine can play a role in intra-group reproductive communication. Lemurs more frequently performed UT-up in a few drops and UT-down in streams. Recognition experiments clearly showed that individuals can discriminate between urine of their own group and urine from a foreign group (a necessary prerequisite for the use of urine in inter-group communication). The possible function of UT-up in inter-troop communication was supported by the higher frequency of this pattern along a fence separating two of the study groups. Moreover, in the presence of a dummy, the frequency of UT-up increased significantly. In conclusion, UT-up is a complex signal with multiple characteristics. By using different sensory channels, UT-up provides different types of information (location and signaller quality) and contains multiple messages directed both at group-members and neighbouring groups.

“...to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all” (from the Purloined letter E. A. Poe, 1845)
Communicated by P. Kappeler