Since I was a child and had a dog as a pet I have always wished that I could understand animals entirely – be able to know exactly what they are saying to each other, and sometimes saying to me! The truth is that we will never understand exactly, and communication in the animal kingdom goes way beyond verbal exchanges. In this post, I hope to shed some light on a very important form of communication; animal scent marking. Many animals scent mark, including rhinos, wildebeest, impala, and various others, however, my main focus is on predators – how and why they scent-mark.
At Londolozi, we have been able to contribute significantly to research in the field of ethology (animal behaviour). Take, for example, the Leopards of Londolozi. Ever since John Varty and Elmon Mhlongo first started tracking and documenting the Mother Leopard in 1979, we have continued to sensitively view these elusive animals and in turn been able to document their natural behaviour, unperturbed by our presence. Using the generations of experience, and viewing of numerous leopards we have been given an insight into how predators, and specifically leopards communicate. Generally, animals communicate via three main channels: vocally, visually and chemically/olfactory signals, this is where scent-marking comes in.
The How and Why of Animals Scent Marking?
There are multiple mechanisms through which they leave behind their scent:
Scent left via Glandular Secretions:
- You might be wondering how some of these animals scent mark. There are a number of ways in which animals may deposit these secretions, depending on where the glands are located. Glands located within the skin, especially on the face and cheeks of the predators produce a sebaceous secretion that is rubbed against trees and bushes. Lions, Leopards and cheetahs will also ‘Sharpen their claws’ on the bark of a tree. Along with keeping their claws in good condition, there are glands in between their digits that leave their scent behind. The same glands deposit scent onto the ground and grass when the animal scratches their feet through the grass. Animals such as the African Civet and Spotted Hyaena will rub their anal gland against a tuft of grass or prominent branch, leaving behind a pungent smell.
- Latrine sites are used by some animals, for example spotted hyaenas, to act as a marking post for territorial demarcation. They will usually be situated at strategic places within the animal’s territory or home range, for example on the boundaries.
- Predators will usually spray their urine onto bushes or trees, the sprayed urine contains pheromones pertaining to the individual. These demarcations are usually done while out on a territorial patrol and so the animal is able to spread the message far and wide. They may also choose to scrape the ground before, during and after urination to remove any existing scent, saturate that specific area with the scent, and then coat their feet in it to carry that scent along with them as they continue walking, leaving a trail of their scent on the path.
Well, it’s fairly simple. Some animals scent mark in order to communicate important messages such as their gender and reproductive condition, their territory, age, social status and individual identity to other individuals of the same species.
Animals scent marking is an effective means of communication amongst the predators as these messages are longer lasting compared to, for example, a male lion advertising his territory by roaring which is immediate and once-off. In order to prolong the longevity of these messages, the predators have learnt which trees or bushes they should scent mark on in order for the message to last longer. A perfect example is the choice to scent-mark on a Magic Guarrie bush, the leaves of this tree are distasteful and therefore not browsed upon as much as other trees might be, ensuring that the scent remains intact.
Now it is one thing for the predators to leave their scent behind, but in order to process the messages and signals from potential mates, rivals, or intruders an organ in the top of the palate of the mouth known as the Organ of Jacobson, processes the pheromones allowing them to determine exactly who it was that left that message and how should they respond to it. Through a flehmen grimace, the ducts in the mouth and nasal passages are opened, allowing the pheromones to be transported to, and analysed by this specialised organ.
Having far superior senses than us as humans, these animals are able to communicate in ways that we cannot even imagine. Through olfactory cues that last weeks, these animals can communicate such a high level of detail without being anywhere near each other. Mother Nature is phenomenal in the way she works.