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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Animal Note: Smelly Elephants

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Maggie Villiger reports on scented secretions that help keep the peace in elephant society.


CURWOOD: Just ahead, 18 years after the Bhopal disaster, a court orders Union Carbide to make more disclosures. First this page from the Animal Notebook with Maggie Villiger.


VILLIGER: Mature male elephants experience musth once a year. The symptoms are high testosterone levels, aggressive behavior, and a strong urge to mate. Also, a smelly secretion oozes from the temporal gland near the eye. Younger males, who are sexually mature, but not yet socially mature, experience a kind of trial musth. Their testosterone levels spike. And like human teenagers, their behavior gets mischievous and erratic. But instead of the acrid secretion of their elders, the youngsters release a sweet-smelling ooze that's chemically related to honey.

In a recent experiment, scientists allowed mature and young elephants to sniff both secretions and observed their reactions. Adult males weren't fazed by the sweet smell of the immature males. The youths, on the other hand, were repelled by the smell of an adult in musth about 90% of the time. Researchers think these scented secretions send messages that help elephant society run smoothly. Young guys know to steer clear of adults who mean business, while mature males know that the youngsters are just horsing around, and aren't real competition.

The scientists are working out ways to use these chemical signals in deterrence programs in the wild where rampaging musth elephants can destroy crops. That's this week's Animal Note. I'm Maggie Villiger.


CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living On Earth.

[MUSIC: John Martyn & Talvin Singh, "Sunshine Better," CAFÉ DEL MAR]



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