Sniff, sniff. What did you say? New form of animal communication discovered

Mar 07, 2013
Sniff, sniff. What did you say?
When animals like dogs or rats sniff one another, there might be more going on than you’d think. Research reported in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, on March 7th finds in rats that those sniffing behaviors communicate information about an individual’s social status. In those encounters, more dominant rats act as primary sniffers, while subordinate sniffees actually slow their breath. Credit: Wesson, Current Biology

When animals like dogs or rats sniff one another, there might be more going on than you'd think. Research reported in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, on March 7th finds in rats that those sniffing behaviors communicate information about an individual's social status. In those encounters, more dominant rats act as primary sniffers, while subordinate sniffees actually slow their breath.

"We know that rats and other animals can communicate through vocalizations, physical contact, odors, and also ," says Daniel Wesson of Case Western Reserve University. "To find that there was an undiscovered form of communication these animals had been using right in front of us this whole time was truly a neat experience."

Of course, the animals do use sniffing to smell each other. But Wesson suspected that wasn't the whole story. After all, it takes very little sniffing for a dog to pick up the scent of another dog. Why, then, do they sometimes sniff one another so vigorously? And why might those sniffing exchanges lead to a fight in some cases but not others?

In the new study, Wesson used recordings of nasal in to find that when one rat sniffs in the direction of another, the recipient of that attention will respond by slowing their own sniffing rate, as if to say "don't mind me." Further investigation showed that the direction of those interactions depended on the relative size and social status of each of the two animals. In the event that a smaller subordinate failed to lower their sniffing rate appropriately, the more dominant partner would often lash out aggressively.

Those sniffing exchanges continued even in animals unable to smell but could be eliminated by treating animals with , a chemical sometimes referred to as the "love hormone."

Wesson says it is likely that the animals are communicating conflict avoidance and appeasement signals in their decisions to sniff or not to sniff. It's not unlike the way a male primate beats his chest to demonstrate superiority while juveniles in his presence bow down in submission.

That sniffing is used not only to collect but also to convey information highlights the complex social lives of animals. "It opens the door to a totally new line of understanding complex, microstructured social behaviors," Wesson says.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

More information: Current Biology, Wesson: "Sniffing behavior communicates social hierarchy." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.012

Related Stories

Animals learn to fine-tune their sniffs

Oct 30, 2012

Animals use their noses to focus their sense of smell, much the same way that humans focus their eyes, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

Hunger hormone enhances sense of smell

Apr 12, 2011

An appetite-stimulating hormone causes people and animals to sniff odors more often and with greater sensitivity, according to a new study in the April 13 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest ghreli ...

Odor-related neural action and behavior linked

Dec 20, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Harvard researchers have illuminated how the brain processes information about odor, linking a temporal pattern of electrical spikes traveling through the nervous system with specific smells ...

How fast can a rat smell?

Apr 08, 2008

Using an ethologically relevant task—exploratory sniffing—Daniel Wesson and colleagues from Boston University discovered that rats are able to discriminate odors much more quickly than previously thought, ...

Early sign of Alzheimer's reversed in lab

Nov 30, 2011

One of the earliest known impairments caused by Alzheimer's disease - loss of sense of smell – can be restored by removing a plaque-forming protein in a mouse model of the disease, a study led by a Case Western Reserve ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

21 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2013
Maybe they are just embarrassed about having bad breath.
gottr
not rated yet Mar 08, 2013
@Isaacsname - I appreciated your comment...I laughed out loud.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2013
IMO our predecessors had this ability too. Actually we can see the examples of such behavior in some movies: for example in French movie Leon the Gary Oldman sniffs the drug dealer (Michael Badalucco) for his fear. It belongs to one of the best scenes of the movie.

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

(Phys.org) —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...