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How Animals Communicate Via Pheromones

Human behaviors are probably influenced by invisible smell signals, just like all other animals.

Tristram Wyatt

2015-03WyattF1.jpgClick to Enlarge Image Powerful messages can be delivered by smell, a fact known long before the means by which they did so was discovered. The ancient Greeks knew that secretions from a female dog in heat were attractive to male dogs. In his beekeepers’ manual The Feminine Monarchie published in 1623, Charles Butler warned that an injured bee’s "ranke smell" would attract other angry bees to sting. In the late 19th century, New York’s first state entomologist, Joseph Lintner, noted the crowds gathered on the sidewalk outside, looking at the spectacle of 50 wild silk moth males attracted to a virgin female moth in his office window. Lintner correctly observed that the attraction was probably a chemical, detected by the large, elaborate antennae of the males. He predicted that such an irresistible and far-reaching force could be used to control agricultural pest moths, if only chemists could identify and synthesize these powerful molecules.

Lintner’s prediction has been generously fulfilled (see the "Putting Pheromones to Use). But because the quantity of pheromone produced by each animal is so small, it was almost 70 years before the first pheromone could be chemically identified, in 1959, by the Nobel Prize–winning German chemist Adolf Butenandt and his large team.

In the half century since then, as the technology for isolating and identifying trace amounts of compounds has become more refined, pheromones have been found in almost every kind of animal, in squid, lobsters, ants, fish, salamanders, and mice, to name just a few. Although pheromones are important in many species for finding mates for sex, they can have a wide variety of other functions, such as one produced by mother rabbits that prompts suckling by their pups. In many social insects, such as the ants, bees, and wasps, almost every part of colony behavior is mediated by pheromones, from queen signals affecting worker reproduction within the colony to Butler’s "ranke smell" alarm pheromone that activates colony defense against enemies.

Pheromones are central to the lives of animals, and in my 30 years of studying pheromone evolution, I have come to appreciate the enormous variety of ways that animals use pheromones as well as how similarly these signals are perceived by smell. Studies of moths, social insects, and mice have contributed some of the biggest breakthroughs in pheromone research, but one member of the animal kingdom remains a tantalizing mystery: humans.

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