Love is in the air: Sociality and pair bondedness influence sifaka reproductive signalling

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© 2013 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.Social complexity, often estimated by group size, is seen as driving the complexity of vocal signals, but its relation to olfactory signals, which arguably arose to function in nonsocial realms, remains underappreciated. That olfactory signals also may mediate within-group interaction, vary with social complexity and promote social cohesion underscores a potentially crucial link with sociality. To examine that link, we integrated chemical and behavioural analyses to ask whether olfactory signals facilitate reproductive coordination in a strepsirrhine primate, the Coquerel's sifaka, Propithecus coquereli. Belonging to a clade comprising primarily solitary, nocturnal species, the diurnal, group-living sifaka represents an interesting test case. Convergent with diurnal, group-living lemurids, sifakas expressed chemically rich scent signals, consistent with the social complexity hypothesis for communication. These signals minimally encoded the sex of the signaller and varied with female reproductive state. Likewise, sex and female fertility were reflected in within-group scent investigation, scent marking and overmarking. We further asked whether, within breeding pairs, the stability or quality of the pair's bond influences the composition of glandular signals and patterns of investigatory or scent-marking behaviour. Indeed, reproductively successful pairs tended to show greater similarity in their scent signals than did reproductively unsuccessful pairs, potentially through chemical convergence. Moreover, scent marking was temporally coordinated within breeding pairs and was influenced by past reproductive success. That olfactory signalling reflects social bondedness or reproductive history lends support to recent suggestions that the quality of relationships may be a more valuable proxy than group size for estimating social complexity. We suggest that olfactory signalling in sifakas is more complex than previously recognized and, as in other socially integrated species, can be a crucial mechanism for promoting group cohesion and maintaining social bonds. Thus, the evolution of sociality may well be reflected in the complexity of olfactory signalling.






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Greene, LK, and CM Drea (2014). Love is in the air: Sociality and pair bondedness influence sifaka reproductive signalling. Animal Behaviour, 88. pp. 147–156. 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.11.019 Retrieved from

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Lydia Greene

Dir, Acad Engagement for Acad Discipline

I am currently the Director of Academic Engagement for Natural & Quantitative Sciences in Duke's Academic Advising Center. My work involves mentoring and advising undergraduates pursuing opportunities and careers in the STEM fields, and working with campus partners to develop more inclusive STEM programming.

My own research is on the ecology of lemurs in Madagascar, with a central focus on mechanisms of local adaptation in sifakas. Prior to my role as NQS DAE, I was a postdoctoral associate at the Duke Lemur Center and graduate student in Duke's Ecology Program. My dissertation research was on the role of the gut microbiome in facilitating folivory as an ecological strategy in lemurs. 


Christine M. Drea

Professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

I have two broad research interests, sexual differentiation and social behavior, both focused on hyenas and primates. I am particularly interested in unusual species in which the females display a suite of masculinized characteristics, including male- like or exaggerated external genitalia and social dominance.
The study of naturally occurring hormones in such unique mammals can reveal general processes of hormonal activity, expressed in genital morphology, reproductive development, and social behavior. Taking a combined laboratory and field approach allows me to relate captive data to various facets of the animals' natural habitat, thereby enhancing the ecological validity of assay procedures and enriching interpretation in an evolutionary framework. The goal of comparative studies of hyenas and lemurs is to help elucidate the mechanisms of mammalian sexual differentiation.

My research program in social behavior focuses on social learning and group cohesion. Using naturalistic tasks that I present to captive animals in socially relevant contexts, I can investigate how social interaction modulates behavior, problem- solving, and cognitive performance. By studying and comparing models of carnivore and primate foraging, I can better understand how group-living animals modify their actions to meet environmental demands. A primary interest is determining whether similar factors, related to having a complex social organization, influence learning and performance across taxonomic groups. I am also interested in how animals learn rules of social conduct and maintain social cohesion, as evidenced by their patterns of behavioral developmental, the intricate balance between aggression and play, the expression of scent marking, and the social facilitation or inhibition of behavior.

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