Ring-tailed lemurs engage in stink-flirting to attract mates

Published: Nov. 17, 2017 at 3:51 PM

Brooks Hays

Nov. 17 (UPI) -- For ring-tailed lemurs, flirting is foul affair. Males perform a mating ritual involving the spraying of a stinky scent. New research suggests the performances can earn mates, but also inspire enemies.

The behavior is called stink-flirting, and the latest study -- published this week in the American Journal of Primatology -- is one of the first to take a in-depth look at the unique act.

Lemurs perform other types of scent marking, but the latest research suggests stink-flirting is the most offensive.

"These males are met with higher levels of aggression than if they were to do other types of scent-marking, so there's definitely something unique about this type of behavior," Amber Walker-Bolton, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, said in a news release.

Ring-tailed lemurs are highly social primates native to Madagascar. They live in large groups lead by dominant females. They often huddle at night to keep warm, with lower ranking males excluded.

Males use their scent to mark territory and also engage in stink-fighting. Rival males will rub their tails in their scent gland and waft it toward their opponent. The behavior is well documented.

Stink-flirting -- the use of scent as an attractor instead of a weapon -- is less often studied.

"One morning I was watching a huddle and saw an outsider male approach and try to waft his tail to a female," Walker-Bolton said. "Well, right away he was met with all this aggression from the group, and it made me question why they would go through this just to be met with a negative result."

Walker-Bolton and her colleagues began regularly observing the behavior and picked up on a variety of interesting patterns. They found dominant males perform the act most often, but that males from both within and out of local communities deploy the tactic in attempts to woo local females. The researchers also observed that those who use the tactic were attacked more often.

"It could be a way for them to show their rank or it may simply be an alternative mating strategy in terms of transferring to a new group to gain mating opportunities," said Walker-Bolton. "One thing is for sure, there's a lot of aggression directed towards them, and it's a costly thing to do since it can end in such a gruesome fight."

Both male and female lemurs can execute rather violent attacks, leaping and lunging at adversaries before deploying sharp claws and teeth. But the evidence suggests the risky maneuver pays off.

"Females don't present every time, and they don't present to every male, but it's interesting that males who engaged in a greater number of stink-flirting displays were presented to more often," Walker-Bolton said.

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