A pachyderm perfume: Odour encodes identity and group membership in African elephants
October 6, 2022
Katharina E. M. von Dürckheim, Louwrens C. Hoffman, Carlos Poblete-Echeverría, Jacqueline M. Bishop, Thomas E. Goodwin, Bruce A. Schulte & Alison Leslie Scientific Reports


Group-living animals that live in complex social systems require effective modes of communication to maintain social cohesion, and several acoustic, olfactory and visual signaling systems have been described. Individuals need to discriminate between in- and out-group odour to both avoid inbreeding and to identify recipients for reciprocal behaviour. The presence of a unique group odour, identified in several social mammals, is a proposed mechanism whereby conspecifics can distinguish group from non-group members. African elephants (Loxodonta africana) live in stable, socially complex, multi-female, fission–fusion groups, characterized by female philopatry, male dispersal and linear dominance hierarchies. Elephant social behaviour suggests that individuals use odour to monitor the sex, reproductive status, location, health, identity and social status of conspecifics. To date, it is not clear what fixed or variable information is contained in African elephant secretions, and whether odour encodes kinship or group membership information. Here we use SPME GC–MS generated semiochemical profiles for temporal, buccal and genital secretions for 113 wild African elephants and test their relationship with measures of genetic relatedness. Our results reveal the existence of individual identity odour profiles in African elephants as well as a signature for age encoded in temporal gland and buccal secretions. Olfactory signatures for genetic relatedness were found in labial secretions of adult sisters. While group odour was not correlated with group genetic relatedness, our analysis identified “group membership” as a significant factor explaining chemical differences between social groups. Saturated and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), derived from key volatile compounds from bacterial fermentation, were identified in temporal, buccal and genital secretions suggesting that group odour in African elephants may be the result of bacterial elements of the gut microbiome. The frequent affiliative behavior of African elephants is posited as a likely mechanism for bacterial transmission. Our findings favour flexible group-specific bacterial odours, which have already been proposed for other social mammals and present a useful form of olfactory communication that promotes bond group cohesion among non-relatives in fission–fusion mammals.