, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 92–95 | Cite as

Scent-rubbing and status signalling by male mammals

  • L. Morris Gosling
  • Helen V. McKay
Research papers


There is no consensus about the function of scent-rubbing, a widespread behaviour in which mammals rub their bodies vigorously in substances, many strong-smelling and some artificial, such as rotting meat, intestinal contents and engine oil. Here we suggest that scent-rubbing is involved in status advertisement and that, as in assessment using scent marks, the mechanism used by competitors to assess potential opponents may be scent-matching. In scent-matching a resource holder is assessed (identified) by comparing its odour with odours on or near the defended resource. In scent marking the odour originates from the resource holder (glandular secretion, urine and faeces); in scent-rubbing the odour originates in the environment.

A prerequisite of unambiguous scent-matching is that the odour of scent-marks should be uniquely characteristic of one individual. This may be why marking substances are very complex chemically. Scent-rubbing often occurs with scent-marking and, rather than acting independently of scent-marking, the odours acquired may either (i) add to the complexity of the signal, thus reducing signal ambiguity, or (ii) increase the range of the signal by adding a strong smelling component.

Subordinates could potentially cheat by rubbing in the same odours as the resource holder. Resource holders could prevent cheating (i) by checking other status cues and by testing competitors whose scent matches, then escalating contests when the competitor's fighting ability (more formally, Resource Holding Power) proves to be lower than that of a resource holder and (ii) by mixing the substances used for scent-rubbing with the unique substances used in scent-marking.

Key words

scent-rubbing scent-marking scent-matching resource holders territories Mammalia 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Albone ES (1984) Mammalian Semiochemistry. Chichester: John Wiley & SonsGoogle Scholar
  2. Clutton-Brock TH, Albon SD (1979) The roaring of red deer and evolution of honest advertisement. Behaviour 69:145–170Google Scholar
  3. Coblenz BE (1976) Functions of scent-urination in ungulates with special reference to feral goats (Capra hircus L.). Amer Nat 110:549–557Google Scholar
  4. Davies NB, Halliday TR (1978) Deep croaks and fighting assessment in toadsBufo bufo. Nature 274:683–685Google Scholar
  5. Dubost G (1971) Observations ethologique sur le muntjak (Mutiacus muntjak Zimmermann 1780 etM. reevesi Ogilby 1839) en captivite et semi-liberte. Z Tierpsychol 28:387–427PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Ewer RF, Wemmer C (1974) The behaviour in captivity of the African civet,Civettictis civetta (Schreiber). Z Tierpsychol 34:359–394Google Scholar
  7. Gosling LM (1981) Demarkation in a gerenuk territory: an economic approach. Z Tierpsychol 56:305–322Google Scholar
  8. Gosling LM (1982) A reassessment of the function of scent-marking. Z Tierpsychol 60:89–118Google Scholar
  9. Gosling LM (1986) Economic consequences of scent marking in mammalian territoriality. Pp 385–395in Duval D, Müller-Schwarze D, Silverstein RM (eds) Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 4. New York: Plenum Publ CoGoogle Scholar
  10. gGosling LM, McKay HV (1990) Competitor assessment by scent-matching: an experimental test. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 26:415–420Google Scholar
  11. Heimburger N (1959) Das Markierungsverhalten einiger Caniden. Z Tierpsychol 16:104–113Google Scholar
  12. Jarman MV (1979) Impala social behaviour: territory, hierarchy, mating and the use of space. Adv Ethol 21:1–93Google Scholar
  13. Kleiman D (1966) Scent marking in the Canidae. Symp Zool Soc Lond 34:171–209Google Scholar
  14. Oppenheimer JR (1977) Communication in New World monkeys. Pp 851–865in Sebeok TA (ed) How Animals Communicate. Bloomington: Indiana Univ PressGoogle Scholar
  15. Parker GA (1974) Assessment strategy and the evolution of fighting behaviour. J Theor Biol 47:223–243PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Rieger I (1979) Scent rubbing in carnivores. Carnivore 2:17–25Google Scholar
  17. Rohwer S (1977) Status signalling in Harris's sparrows: some experiments in deception. Behaviour 61:107–129Google Scholar
  18. Ryon J, Fentress JC, Harrington FH, Bragdon S (1986) Scent rubbing in wolves (Canis lupus): the effect of novelty. Can J Zool 64:573–577Google Scholar
  19. Struhsaker TT (1967) Behaviour of the elk (Cervus canadensis) during the rut. Z Tierpsychol 24:80–114PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Tschanz B, Meyer-Holzapfel M, Bachmann S (1970) Das Informationssystem bei Braunbären. Z Tierpsychol 27:47–72Google Scholar
  21. Wemmer C, Scow K (1977) Communication in the Felidae with emphasis on scent marking and contact patterns. Pp 749–766in Sebeok TA (ed) How Animals Communicate. Bloomington: Indiana Univ PressGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Georg Thieme Verlag Stuttgart 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. Morris Gosling
    • 1
  • Helen V. McKay
    • 1
  1. 1.Mammal Ecology Group, Central Science LaboratoryMinistry of Agriculture, Fisheries and FoodNorwichUnited Kingdom

Personalised recommendations