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Nov 12, 2013 08:30 AM EST

Sour-Smelling ‘Paste,’ Secreted by Hyenas Helps Them Communicate with Peers, Study

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Animals communicate with each other in different ways: whales sing, wolves howl, frogs croak, birds chip and honey bees engage in a waggle dance among others. Now a Michigan State University researcher has found another unique form of communication in animals.

Hyenas communicate with each other through  'Pasting.' When a hyena rubs its bottom against grass stalks, it greases the plants with a waxy yellow secretion, 'paste.' Researcher said that hyenas can get a wide-range of information just by sniffing the sour-smelling paste - a hyena's gender, age and reproductive status, among other factors.

The scented messages are produced from small scent glands located between their anus and their tail. And helping them getting the information are some tiny little odor-producing bacteria residing in the scent glands of hyenas.

"When hyenas leave paste deposits on grass, the sour-smelling signals relay reams of information for other animals to read," said Kevin Theis, the paper's lead author and MSU postdoctoral researcher in a statement. "Hyenas can leave a quick, detailed message and go. It's like a bulletin board of who's around and how they're doing."

 "Scent posts are bulletin boards, pastes are business cards, and bacteria are the ink, shaped into letters and words that provide information about the paster to the boards' visitors," Theis said. "Without the ink, there is potentially just a board of blank uninformative cards."

Theis and his team studied several groups of male and female spotted and striped hyenas in Kenya. They collected paste from the scent pouches of 40 spotted hyenas and 33 striped hyenas. Through genetic sequencing techniques, researchers analyzed the various bacterial communities residing in the paste from each hyena.

The researchers found that spotted and striped hyenas had different communities of bacteria in their pastes. Hence, they produced different smells. However, both the bacterial landscape was dominated by fermentative bacteria, which are known to emit odorous chemicals.

"Most mammals have scent glands somewhere on their bodies-it can be on their head, shoulder, feet, flanks, or back," Theis told National Geographic. "Hyenas use scent to demarcate and defend their territories. And within groups, they use it during social interactions and to cement group cohesion, especially among females. Males seem to be using it to maintain their dominance hierarchies without having to resort to aggression."

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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