The Function of Scentmarking in Spectral Tarsiers

  • Sharon Gursky-Doyen
Part of the Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects book series (DIPR)


One of the primary trends characterizing primates as distinct from other mammals is their increasing dependence on vision and the concomitant reduced dependence on their sense of olfaction (Fleagle 1998; Martin 1990). Although most primates rely heavily on their sense of vision, their olfactory sense still plays an important role in their day to day activities (Charles-Dominique 1977; Harcourt 1981; Clark 1982; Epple et al. 1988; Dugmore and Evans 1990; Fornasieri and Roeder 1992; Harrington 1977). This is especially true of prosimian primates that have undergone the least reduction in their olfactory apparatus relative to the other primates (Martin 1990; Fleagle 1998).

Prosimian primates are known to deposit scent around their territory. Two major hypotheses have been proposed to explain the function of scentmarking behavior in primates and other mammals. First, it has been hypothesized that scentmarking serves to mark off territorial boundaries. For example, in Lemur catta, the majority of the scent marks were in a narrow band within the area of overlap that coincided with the positions of inter-troop confrontations (Mertl-Millhollen 1988). Scentmarks in Lemur catta thus appear to demarcate territorial boundaries and not the completed home range boundaries. This hypothesis has also been proposed for a variety of other animals including pronghorn antelope (Gilbert 1973), hyenas (Gorman 1990), oribi (Gosling 1981), African dwarf mongoose (Rasa 1973), aardwolf (Richardson 1990), and European badger (Roper et al. 1986).

It has also been proposed that scentmarking enables group members to monitor female reproductive condition, thereby serving a mate defense function. Male cotton-top tamarins Saguinus oedipus are capable of discerning the chemical signals of ovulation as are meadow voles (Ferkin et al. 1995; Ziegler et al. 1993). This hypothesis has been proposed to account for the ability of males to locate sexually receptive females in many of the nocturnal solitary foraging prosimians (Charles-Dominique et al. 1980; Doyle and Martin 1979; Tattersall and Sussman 1977).

Spectral tarsiers have a number of scent marking glands that they use to deposit scent throughout their range. These include (1) the ano-genital gland, (2) the epigastric gland, and (3) the circum-oral gland (Niemitz 1984). They are also known to scentmark by depositing small droplets of urine on substrates. Although previous studies have described the form of scent marking behavior in semi-wild (caged in their natural habitat) (Niemitz 1984), and wild spectral tarsiers (MacKinnon and MacKinnon 1980), no quantitative attempts have been made to identify the function of this behavior.

If the function of spectral tarsier scent marking is to communicate information about the female’s reproductive condition, then it is predicted that (1) scentmarks will be randomly distributed throughout the territory and not restricted to the territorial borders and (2) scentmark frequency will increase during the mating season compared to the nonmating season. If spectral tarsier scentmark in order to defend their territory, then it is predicted that (1) both males and females will scentmark equally; (2) scentmarks will not be randomly distributed throughout the group’s territory, but will be restricted to the territory borders, particularly at the areas of overlap; and (3) scent marking behavior will increase in frequency during territorial disputes.


Mating Season Lemur Catta Territorial Dispute Meadow Vole European Badger 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The author acknowledges that this research would not have been possible without the permission and assistance of the following organizations and people: LIPI (The Indonesian Institute of Sciences), SOSPOL, POLRI, PHPA (Manado, Bitung, Tangkoko, and Jakarta), Romon Palette, Yoppy Muskita (WWF), Jatna Supriatna, the University of Indonesia-Depok, and Tigor P.N. (UNas). Thanks go to my field assistants for their help in collecting the data (Nestor, Petros, Celsius, Frans, Ben, Nolde, Nellman, and Uri). Funding for this research was provided by: Wenner Gren Foundation, National Science Foundation Grant SBR-9507703, Douroucouli Foundation, Chicago Zoological Society, L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, Primate Conservation Incorporated, and Sigma Xi.


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behavior: sampling methods. Behaviour 49:227-267PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bibby R, Southwood T, Cairns P (1992) Techniques for estimating population density in birds. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Brower J, Zar J, von Ende C (1990) Field and laboratory methods for general ecology. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, IowaGoogle Scholar
  4. Charles-Dominique P (1977) Ecology and behavior of nocturnal primates. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Charles-Dominique P, Cooper H, Hladik A, Hladik C, Pages E, Pariente G, Petter-Rousseaux A, Petter J, Schilling A (1980) Nocturnal Malagasy primates. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Clark A (1982) Scentmarks as social signals in Galago crassicaudatus. I. Sex and reproductive status as factors in signals and responses. J Chem Ecol 8(8):1133-1151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Doyle G, Martin R (1979) The study of prosimian behavior. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Dugmore S, Evans C (1990) Discrimination of conspecific chemosignals by female ringtailed lemurs, Lemur catta. In: MacDonald D, Muller-Schwarze D, Natynczuk S (eds) Chemical signals in vertebrates. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 361-366Google Scholar
  9. Epple G, Kuderling I, Belcher A (1988) Some communicatory functions of scentmarking in the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus oedipus). J Chem Ecol 14:503-515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Ferkin M, Sorokin E, Johnston R, Lee C (1995) Attractiveness of scent varies with protein content of the diet in meadow voles. Anim Behav 53:133-141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fleagle J (1998) Primate adaptation and evolution. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Fornasieri I, Roeder J (1992) Marking behaviour in two Lemur species (L. fulvus and L. macaco): relation to social status, reproduction, aggression and environmental change. Folia Primatol 59:11137-11148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gilbert B (1973) Scentmarking and territoriality in pronghorn (Antilope americana) in Yellowstone National Park. Mammalia 37:25-33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gorman M (1990) Scentmarking strategies in mammals. Rev Suisse Zool 97:3-29Google Scholar
  15. Gosling L (1981) Demarcation in a gerenuk territory: an economic approach. Z Tierpsychol 56:305-322Google Scholar
  16. Gursky SL (1994) Infant care in the spectral tarsier, Tarsius spectrum: a preliminary analysis. Int J Primatol 15(6):843-853Google Scholar
  17. Gursky SL (1995) Group size and composition in the spectral tarsier, Tarsius spectrum: implications for social organization. Trop Biodivers 3(1):57-62Google Scholar
  18. Gursky S (1997) Modeling maternal time budgets: the impact of lactation and gestation on the behavior of the spectral tarsier, Tarsius spectrum. Ph.D. dissertation, Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences, SUNY-Stony BrookGoogle Scholar
  19. Gursky SL (1998) The conservation status of the spectral tarsier, Tarsius spectrum, in Sulawesi Indonesia. Folia Primatologica 69:191-203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gursky SL (2000) Effect of seasonality on the behavior of an insectivorous primate. Int J Primatol 21:477-495CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Harcourt C (1981) The function of urine washing in Galago senegalensis. Z Tierpsychol 55:119-128Google Scholar
  22. Harrington J (1977) Discrimination between males and females by scent in Lemur fulvus. In: Tattersall I, Sussman R (eds) Lemur biology. Plenum, New York, pp 259-279Google Scholar
  23. Kenward R (1987) Wildlife radio tagging. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Kinnaird M, O’Brien T (1993) Species list of trees found within Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Unpublished MSGoogle Scholar
  25. MacKinnon J, MacKinnon K (1980) The behavior of wild spectral tarsiers. Int J Primatol 1:361-379CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Martin RD (1990) Primate origins and evolution. Chapman & Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  27. Mertl-Millhollen A (1988) Olfactory demarcation of territorial but not home range boundaries by Lemur catta. Folia Primatol 50:175-187PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Niemitz C (1984) The biology of tarsiers. Gustav Fischer, StuttgartGoogle Scholar
  29. Rasa O (1973) Marking behaviour and its social significance in the African dwarf mongoose, Helogale undulata rufula. Z Tierpsychol 32:293-318PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Richardson P (1990) Scentmarking and territoriality in the aardwolf. In: MacDonald D, Muller-Schwarze D, Natynczuk S (eds) Chemical signals in vertebrates. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 378-387Google Scholar
  31. Roper T, Shepherdson D, Davies J (1986) Scentmarking with faeces and anal secretion in the European badger (Meles meles): seasonal and spatial characteristics of latrine use in relation to territoriality. Behaviour 97:94-117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Tattersall I, Sussman R (1977) Lemur biology. Plenum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. White G, Garrott R (1987) Analysis of wildlife radiotracking data. Academic, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  34. Whitten T, Mustafa M, Henderson G (1987) The ecology of Sulawesi. Gadjah Mada University Press, YogyakartaGoogle Scholar
  35. World Wildlife Fund (1980) Cagar Alam Gunung Tangkoko Dua Saudara Sulawesi Utara Management Plan 1981-1986. Bogor, IndonesiaGoogle Scholar
  36. Wright PC, Izard M, Simons E (1986) Reproductive cycles in Tarsius bancanus. Am J Primatol 11:207-215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wright PC, Toyama L, Simons E (1988) Courtship and copulation in Tarsius bancanus. Folia Primatol 46:142-148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ziegler T, Epple G, Snowdon C, Porter T, Belcher A, Kuderling I (1993) Detection of the chemical signals of ovulation in the cotton-top tamarin, Saguinus oedipus. Anim Behav 5:313-322CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

Personalised recommendations