Hyena Microbiome Differs Between Packs, Helps Smell Friend From Foe
Researchers from Michigan State University have found a wrinkle in how hyenas use their noses that might have implications for how we understand the sense of smell in many other animals as well. Like most species of dogs, hyenas use scent as their primary sense — it’s how they find prey, how they look for mates, and how they communicate with one another. New research published this month in the journal Scientific Reports shows that hyenas from different clans appear to have different colonies of bacteria living in their scent glands. The study marks the first time that widely different communities of odor-causing bacteria have been found in the same species, and could offer insight on how animals communicate by smell.
Researchers analyzed hyena “paste” that the animals use to mark their territory, show where they’ve been, and otherwise communicate with other members of their clan, as well as outsiders. They showed that while hyenas from the same clan have very similar communities of microbes in their paste, those communities were very different from clan to clan. While microbiomes have been found to have implications for things like digestion, this study marks the first time microbial makeup has been shown to play a role in an animal’s social behavior.
It’s not yet understood exactly what information is being passed along in these scents, or how sophisticated of a delivery system it really is. Researchers are also at a loss to explain how these microbial communities remain so similar among hyena clans, and what role they might also play in social hierarchy within groups, but that’s all research for another day. It’s also research that could help us understand how smell works in our brains, and why it can have such powerful effects on us.