Scientists sniff out sexy secrets of lemur 'stink flirting' perfume

Lady lemurs may be reacting to the "first fully identified sex pheromones in primates."

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

A male ring-tailed lemur "stink flirts" with a female lemur by waving his tail at her.

Chigusa Tanaka, Japan Monkey Centre

Before we dive into the delightful smells given off by male ring-tailed lemurs, let's take a moment to appreciate the fun fact that a group of lemurs is called a "conspiracy." Now on to the science.

A team of odor experts led by scientists at the University of Tokyo decided to investigate the chemical makeup of a clear liquid exuded by the wrist glands of male lemurs. "These chemicals could be the first fully identified sex pheromones in primates," the University of Tokyo said in a statement Thursday.  

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This lemur wrist gland is where the fruity cologne comes from.

Satomi Ito, Kyoto University

The lemurs engage in a behavior called "stink flirting" that involves rubbing their wrist glands on their tails. They wave those impressive tails at female lemurs during breeding season. The researchers described the scent as "fruity and floral" in a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology

The researchers compared gland liquid collected during breeding seasons and nonbreeding seasons and identified the chemicals in the mix. 

"Three odor compounds (dodecanal, 12-methyltridecanal and tetradecanal) were more abundant and one (acetamide) was less abundant in the wrist gland liquid collected during the breeding season," the University of Tokyo said. 

Study co-author Kazushige Touhara said the three main compounds "appear to be used as communication tools widely throughout the animal kingdom," though this is the first time 12-methyltridecanal has been found in primates.

Female lemurs showed interest in sniffing cotton pads soaked with a blend of the odor compounds. The researchers suggested more study is needed to fully understand what's happening with this lemur cologne and whether there's a connection between the scent and mating success.

The scientists also aren't ready to connect the potential lemur pheromones to other primates. "Maybe there are no sex pheromones in humans," Touhara said, "but there are probably odors -- like parents smelling their baby's heads -- that we use to affect each other's emotions."