Are mammal olfactory signals hiding right under our noses?
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- Apps, P.J. Naturwissenschaften (2013) 100: 487. doi:10.1007/s00114-013-1054-1
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Chemical communication via olfactory semiochemicals plays a central role in the social behaviour and reproduction of mammals, but even after four decades of research, only a few mammal semiochemicals have been chemically characterized. Expectations that mammal chemical signals are coded by quantitative relationships among multiple components have persisted since the earliest studies of mammal semiochemistry, and continue to direct research strategies. Nonetheless, the chemistry of mammal excretions and secretions and the characteristics of those semiochemicals that have been identified show that mammal semiochemicals are as likely to be single compounds as to be mixtures, and are as likely to be coded by the presence and absence of chemical compounds as by their quantities. There is very scant support for the view that mammal semiochemicals code signals as specific ratios between components, and no evidence that they depend on a Gestalt or a chemical image. Of 31 semiochemicals whose chemical composition is known, 15 have a single component and 16 are coded by presence/absence, one may depend on a ratio between two compounds and none of them are chemical images. The expectation that mammal chemical signals have multiple components underpins the use of multivariate statistical analyses of chromatographic data, but the ways in which multivariate statistics are commonly used to search for active mixtures leads to single messenger compounds and signals that are sent by the presence and absence of compounds being overlooked. Research on mammal semiochemicals needs to accommodate the possibility that simple qualitative differences are no less likely than complex quantitative differences to encode chemical signals.