My journey into studying the bizarre mating ritual of “stink flirting” in ring-tailed lemurs began on the University of Waterloo campus, although I didn’t actually start my research into the subject until my master’s work, years later.
Stink flirting involves male ring-tailed lemurs rubbing their fluffy tails with the scent from two of their scent glands: the wrist and chest glands. Once the tail is anointed with scent, the male flips his tail above his head and waves it frantically towards a female’s nose. When I first saw the behaviour I was surprised that males were performing this display towards females, as I had only heard about “stink fighting,” where males perform the tail anointing and wafting towards males in a highly conspicuous and amusing battle. As I began to study the behaviour, I quickly observed that males perform the ritual towards female recipients in nearly equal measure.
Because of my year’s work in Costa Rica observing capuchin monkeys, I was familiar with the concept of costly displays. A costly display is a behaviour, often performed by males, that has both costs and benefits associated with it. Often the cost is energy expenditure, risk of injury or risk of aggression received from group mates, while the payoff is often some kind of mating or reproductive benefit. After identifying the behaviour, I set about collecting observations to determine whether the stink flirting display was indeed a costly behaviour and whether it had an impact on mating success. I found that the behaviour of anointing and wafting your tail to a female is highly costly for a male, as they risk receiving the highest rate of aggression of any type of scent marking. Aggression is received not only from competitor males, but also from the female recipient of the signal. A female receiver will often slap the signaling male across the face! This all changes during her one day estrous period, when the female sexually presents more often towards the males who have been signaling most frequently to her over the past few months.
As a research primatologist who studies mating behaviour in ring-tailed lemurs, I often get asked how I started in this line of work. My answer is that it was during my first year of undergraduate studies as an Arts major, with an undecided focus at the University of Waterloo. It was then that I first took Professor Anne Zeller’s introduction to anthropology course and was presented with the idea of studying primates as a career. Professor Zeller was a great mentor to me and supervised me in an independent study course in which I wrote a report on primate behaviour. Although it took nearly five years after graduation before I had the courage to make the leap into primatology, it was during my time at Waterloo that the idea was born.
Check out the press release from the University of Toronto and learn more about “stink flirting” here.