Gorillas Use Body Odor to Communicate

By April Reese | July 9, 2014 2:20 pm


When it comes to wild ape communication, it’s not just monkey see, monkey do — it’s also monkey smell, monkey do. A new study finds that gorillas use odor signals to communicate.

The study — the first analysis of chemical signaling in wild gorillas — may also shed light on how odor signalling between humans evolved.

Social Smells

The study originated when researchers studying western lowland gorillas in the Central African Republic noticed that the leader of the group emitted particularly strong odors in certain situations. They knew from other studies that human odors can help us identify each other or pick up on someone’s mood or even their status. The silverback’s behavior made them wonder whether the apes might also use odor to communicate.

To find out, the scientists tracked the 13-member Makumba group, named after their leader, for one year, monitoring Makumba’s odor and behavior as well as those of the other members of the group. The researchers found that he was, indeed, using odor as a form of communication, sending out strong “back off” odor signals when in the presence of other groups or rival males, and emitting milder ones when several group members were close by, most likely to help them keep tabs on his whereabouts.

“As interaction intensity increased, the emission of extreme odors significantly increased,” the researchers wrote.

Importance of Odors

But Makumba only emitted extreme odors when also making “visual threat displays” or grunting loudly, the researchers discovered — not when he reacted quietly during conflicts. (When tension mounted with other groups, Makumba reacted in one of two ways: He either became quiet and backed down, or he became aggressive.) But there was a whiff of weaker scents during those quiet responses to conflict, which may be a signal of reassurance to the group.

“Results suggest that silverbacks may use context specific chemo-signals to moderate the social behaviors of other gorillas,” the authors conclude.

The study, published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, suggests that odor signals may be especially useful in central African forests, where visibility is limited.

What’s more, the findings provide evidence for how human olfactory communication may have evolved. The study offers compelling evidence that odor communication in apes “is much more important than traditionally thought,” said Michelle Klailova, the study’s lead author, in a statement.


Image by Judy Kennamer / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals
  • Guest

    My first thought when I saw the headline was “Whose body?”

  • http://www.blackstate.gr BState media

    Why don’t you specify and explain the “gorillas use odor signals to communicate” ?
    How they do it? From where is the odor emitted? Are they “aware” that they emit specific odors or not? …

    • J.d. Norton

      thank you! my questions exactly. not very informative.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Phil Gilstrap

      Where the odor comes from is going to be a tough one to answer. Who, for instance, is going to approach a lowland gorilla displaying smelly and aggressive behavior and start sniffing around his body to locate the source of the scent? And how do you interview an ape to determine if he’s aware of his scent?

      • http://www.blackstate.gr BState media

        A special device could be used, that analyzes the particles (responsible for the various odors) from the air around the area of the subject, to find out the specific body sources based on scientific knowledge base, for the particles should be bonded with other particles carrying the source information. An other device (we already have it) that reads and analyzes the brain function in some specific areas of the brain and its responsible paths, could be used to determine if the subject is aware or not, but for sure the whole research needs to be done in a lab. It is very realistic to do though.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

          I’m smellin’ what ‘chu steppin’ in…right on…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    I’ve personally noticed when speaking to older men, on occasions a very distinct foul odor can be smelt. I always thought it was a sign of toxins in their system but I wonder if I am perceiving dominance or disrespect on a more primal level.

    • margaretbthomas

      Jacqueline implied I’m taken by surprise that a mom can earn $8130 in 1 month
      on the computer . see post C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      you are perceiving ‘olemanish fartus amungus’.. it is an olfactory offense caused by old men…

  • Matthew Stephenson

    Apes are not Monkeys. Please stop making monkey jokes about gorillas

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      define primates?.. you’ll see.

  • Matthew Stephenson

    Ape and Monkeys are both Primates. But Monkeys are not Apes and Apes are not Monkeys. Gorillas are Apes, Baboons are monkeys. Monkeys have tails Apes don’t. If a story is about Gorillas, monkey jokes are stupid. Primate jokes are permissible in Ape stories or monkey stories. And yes I realize this is all incredibly nit-picky. I just cant help it. Certain inaccuracies, jut set me off.


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