Silverback gorillas can broadcast their presence with a stinky stench, or turn off their body odor to hide from strangers, new research suggests.
Researchers came to this conclusion after following — and sniffing — one male gorilla for months, and the discovery suggests these primates may be able to use scent to communicate in social contexts, said study co-author Phyllis Lee, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland who studies primates.
Individual male gorillas wage fierce competitions for control of the females in their harems. Most alpha-male gorillas settle these disputes with a display of power involving chest beating and vocalizations. [Top 10 Swingers of the Animal Kingdom]
Gorillas weren't thought to communicate by smell, but for years, researchers such as Dian Fossey reported that each gorilla has a unique, and rather pungent, musky scent. So Lee and a fellow psychologist at the University of Stirling, Michelle Klailova, spent 12 months following a wild male silverback gorilla in the Central African Republic rainforest as the ape fended off competitors. The gorilla, whom they named Makumba, was a dominant male whose babies had a high survival rate, Lee said.
Makumba exuded his scent when he encountered other gorillas, as if to say, "I am strong, powerful and here, protecting my females and babies," Lee told LiveScience.
Other times, when strange silverbacks were near, Makumba abruptly shut off his scent. "We think he was then trying not to tell the other male where and who he was," Lee said.
Lee said the fact that Makumba could turn this scent on and off suggests that the ability was at least under some conscious control and not just an automatic response to fear or arousal. Humans are known to communicate with smell as well, Lee said.
The findings were published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.