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Why a Primate's Sexy Smell Only Works on Non-Relatives

By Joseph Calamia
Aug 5, 2010 1:06 AMJul 19, 2023 7:08 PM


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Want to attract a good mate and ward off unknown relations? Secrete a smelly substance from that gland on your chest and rub it all over. At least that's what a mandrill might do: A recent study suggests that the baboon-like primates may use their smelly secretions to distinguish compatible mates from family. After taking swabs from mandrill sternal glands, researchers genotyped each sample to determine the monkey's major histocompatibility complex (MHC)--a unique genetic signature related to the animal's immune system. They also, using a sorting technique called gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, determined each secretion's chemical makeup, and thus its stink bouquet. As the study's leader Leslie Knapp of Cambridge University told the BBC, more "genetically diverse" mandrills, i.e. unrelated, have different MHCs and chemically-speaking different scents:

"[I]t seems that the odour is something that tells us some really important things about the genes of a mandrill."

If this all sounds familiar, perhaps that's because some researchers have said the same thing about humans. We somehow--even though researchers can't seem to pin down human pheromones--seem to pick out one another's genetic diversity when sniffing out good mates. Related studies have even examined whether birth control messes with our and animal's don't-mate-with-me-cousin beacons, which could hypothetically lead to inbreeding. As Knapp told the BBC, the animal's colorful face markings also seem important for attracting mates and communicating status. But to complicate matters on our end of the primate family tree, another recent study hinted that, for humans, faces that resemble our own or our parents' drive us wild, narcissistic lot that we are. Related content: Discoblog: You Think You (And Your Parents) Are Hot Discoblog: Can Pheromone Body Wash Make You More Desirable? Discoblog: The Nose Knows: Men’s Sweat Smells Like Cheese, Women’s Like Onions Discoblog: Attention Women: You Can Sniff Out a Man’s Sexual Intentions

Image: Wikimedia / Robert Young

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