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NAIROBI PARK DIARY

Language of smell: How lions can tell a lioness is ripe for mating

Such powerful smell techniques are literally a mystery

In Summary

• Lions can smell reproductive state of females from pheromones in genitals or urine

Fangtastic Mohawk
Fangtastic Mohawk
Image: GARETH JONES

I find it incredible to note how many creatures have a very powerful sense of smell. A combination of hearing, sight and smell is important to maximise possible survival, some creatures have a phenomenal sense of smell, way beyond the very limited human sense of smell.

Being able to smell is not limited to just an odour, their methods of smelling do vary, and can be complex. For humans, it is difficult to imagine that a sense of smell can be an entire language. A language that can identify many things, almost like being able to understand the wildlife “social media” with your nose. It’s a real case of the nose knows. What is the wildlife “social media”? Many creatures mark their territories and in the process also leave vital information regarding their current status.

In August 2007, I saw a strikingly majestic lion standing right next to the road. He stood towering over his “honeymoon” lioness, and then flared his fangs in a grimace as he smelled the air. This action is scientifically known as the flehmen response,  this is because lions have a special sensor called the Jacobson’s organ, this organ is effectively an olfactory mechanism for identifying the reproductive state of females based on the pheromones in the genitals or urine. Lions seemingly “smell the air” as they detect heavy moist particles in the air and then make a decision regarding a particular lioness.

Unbeknown to many people, elephants have been observed to have the most powerful sense of smell. Elephants have a keen sense of smell, detecting water sources up to 19.2 km away. Consider how very limited us humans are well it comes to our sense of smell. There are many creatures with an incredible sense of smell. Such powerful smell techniques are literally a mystery “language of smell” that only the nose knows.

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