Bacteria in Hyena Scent Glands Key to Group-Specific Social Odors

The results, published online on August 30, 2012 in Scientific Reports, a Nature publication, show a clear relationship between the diversity of hyena clans and the distinct microbial communities that reside in their scent glands, said Dr. Kevin Theis, the paper’s lead author and a Michigan State University (MSU) postdoctoral researcher. “A critical component of every animal’s behavioral repertoire is an effective communication system,” said Dr. Theis, who co-authored the study with Dr. Kay Holekamp, an MSU zoologist. “It is possible that without their bacteria, many animals couldn’t ‘say’ much at all.” This is the first time that scientists have shown that different social groups of mammals possess different odor-producing bacterial communities. These communities produce unique chemical signatures, and the hyenas can distinguish among them by using their noses. Past research has demonstrated important roles played by microbes in digestion and other bodily functions. It’s also widely known that most mammals use scent to signal a wide range of traits, including sex, age, reproductive status, and group membership. This study details bacteria living in a mutually beneficial relationship with their hyena hosts. It also highlights the contribution of new DNA sequencing technologies showcasing the role good, symbiotic bacteria play in animal behavior. On the grassy Kenyan plains, Dr. Theis gathered information about the bacterial types present in samples of paste, a sour-smelling secretion that hyenas deposit on grass stalks. Field samples were collected from hyenas’ scent pouches and analyzed using next-generation sequence (NGS) technology back at MSU labs. The samples revealed a high degree of similarities, microbial speaking, between deposits left by members of the same clans.
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