When the air is full of love, young elephants do not think about how to find a girlfriend, but about how to remain unnoticed. Biologists have discovered that Asian adolescent elephants produce a peculiar honey smell, which signals to the adult males that the young do not participate in the fight for females. This discovery makes one assume that pheromones play a more important role in social behaviour of elephants than was supposed before.
Several times a year, adult elephant males have periods of increased sexual attraction accompanied by aggression towards other males. To let other elephants know of it, they emit gases and a fragrant brown liquid produced by gland that is situated between eye and ear. According to biochemist Vets Rasmussen from the Oregona Health and Science Institute, this smell is very caustic for a human being, similar to the smell of thousands of goats. In contrast to adult males, young elephants emit a nice smell, similar to honey.
To find out what these smells signify for elephants, Rasmussen and his colleagues gave this secretion to Asian elephants in captivity. Males of different ages ignored pheromones’ specimens smelling of honey, while their reaction to the adult elephant’s smell was different: young elephants (before 13 years) tried to avoid this smell, while the others reacted to the contrary: the older they were, the more sensitive they were to the smell. The scientists suppose that young elephants emit another smell to secure themselves from conflicts with adult males fighting for females.
Neuro-biologist John Hildebrand from Arizona University considers this investigation to be an important contribution to the study of chemical communication in vertebrates. Scientists are ready to admit pheromones’ role in insects’ communication, while they still do not accept the idea that smell is also important for mammals’ communication.