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Smell and Sound Help Lemurs Find Friends

Update Date: Apr 16, 2014 06:14 PM EDT

Matching voice to face is nothing extraordinary. Humans, dogs, horses, crows and monkeys are all able to recognize people by identifying voices to faces. A new study reveals that some animals, like lemurs, can also match scents to voices.

Scientist found that ring-tailed lemurs respond strongly to the scents and sounds of females when the scent smelled and the voice heard belonged to the same female -- even when she's nowhere in sight.

Researchers found that lemurs were able to learn a specific female's call along with her unique scent. They were also able to combine them into a single picture of a certain individual.

Researchers said that these cat-sized primates from Madagascar tend to howl, wail, moan and chirp to each other to stick together as they scavenge in the forest. These animals also produce a huge variety of scents, with their genital secretions containing hundreds of odor molecules that help the animals tell one individual from another.

The latest study involved 15 ring-tailed lemurs in outdoor enclosures at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Researchers put lemurs into an enclosure where they played a call from a familiar female over a hidden loudspeaker, and then exposed the animal to the scent secretions from either the same female, or a different female from the same social group. Researchers noted that the hidden speaker was located between two wooden rods. One of the rods was swabbed with a female's scent and the other was "unscented," so that the sounds and the scents came from the same location.

The findings revealed that lemurs paid more attention to the sounds and when the call matched the scent of the same female than when they heard one female and smelled another.

Researchers explained that both male and female lemurs spent more time sniffing and/or marking the scented rods in the matched trials than in the mismatched trials. Males also spent more time gazing in the direction of a female's call when her scent was present instead of another female's scent.

Researchers said the ability to identify a scent with an individual has its benefits as odors linger long after the animal that made them has left the area. Researchers this may explain why lemurs were more interested in the matched cues than mismatched ones.

"If they detect a whiff of a familiar female and she's still within earshot she can't be far," coauthor Ipek Kulahci, a graduate student at Princeton University said in a news release.

The findings were published April 16 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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