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Lions have a unique way to know each other social group and sex – it’s urine odour

We, humans, communicate with language or gestures but lions and cats have their unique way to communicate. That is either urinating or scuff-marking. Lions and other cats have specialized scent glands under their paws that they use to mark their territories.

Years ago, scientists concluded the act of lions marking their areas either by peeing or scuff-marking as their bizarre style of showing dominance and ownership. 

But recently a 2017 study found that African lion’s urine is not only for warning non-residents lions but urine odor also assists them to discriminate another lion’s social group, age, and sex. 

Functions of urine in lion olfactory communication:

A 2017 research article, “Spontaneous discrimination of urine odors in wild African lions, Panthera leo” indicated that lion’s urine can signal depositor personal information: age, sex, and social group. The study was published in a renowned journal called Animal Behaviour. The team of four British and Botswana researchers demonstrate the functional significance of urinating or scent marking in olfactory communication in lions and other mammals.

The research team included two researchers, Geoffrey D. Gilfillan and Karen McComb,  from the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, U.K. One researcher, Jessica D.T. Vitale, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, U.K. Lastly, Dr. J. Weldon McNutt from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, Maun, Botswana. 

Researchers wrote, “Olfactory communication (scent marking) is the primary means of communication among lions and other cat species. Semiochemicals in lion urine and glandular secretions play a significant role in discriminating the social group and sex of the depositor. Yet research on this means of communication is still  scarce  in most cat and mammal species.”

For various presentation experiments, the research team collected sixty-one urine-soaked soil samples with five different body postures: spray, scrape, stand, squat, and lie. The research team conducted 68 scent presentation experiments on fifty-two African lions. The lions were from 3 male coalitions and 4 different female prides. The research continued in Okavango Delta from May 2014 to December 2015. 

After 68 successful presentation experiments, 93% of lions sniffed urine samples from a 0.5 m distance. After sniffing the different samples, 59% of lions show flehmen response. The flehmen response is a particular behavioral response in male lions that they depict after smelling the scent of the lioness. This special reaction enables the research team to conclude that male African lions can discriminate the sex of the depositor after sniffing the urine odor. Lioness urine has certain hormones that inform whether they are or not in their estrous cycle. Lions frequently follow the females and sniff their urine to plan mating events. 

During the presentation experiments, male lions responded more strongly to urine from resident males and non-resident males than resident and non-resident females. The strong reaction against males could be associated with severe mating competitions. Males reacted strongly against other male lions either by roaring or overmarking their urine deposits. Males didn’t depict any particular negative behavioral response against a resident or non-resident female indicating their welcoming behavior for increased mating chances. 

The research team also demonstrated that lion urine plays a significant role in mediating lion fission-fusion societies. Urine odor helps them avoid hunting in areas with a high presence of males. Urine odor also assists the pride members to monitor each other’s movements in case of an emergency attack from other pride. 

“All the responses of males and females to the urine odor were depended on both the sex and age of the lion receiving the presentation, lions can use urine to discriminate males from females, and social group of the depositor”, stated the research team.

The flehmen response proved that males were able to identify depositor gender. The roaring and overmarking response proved that males were able to discriminate between resident males and non-resident males. All these behavioral responses provide evidence that lions use urine deposits as scent marks. These scent marks help them to monitor other members’ movements and avoid hunting in an area with a high presence of males. 

The research team also observed that a-week-old urine got less reaction from the lions compared to the fresh urine deposits. The semiochemicals in urine that are important to lions may get degraded or diffused over a period. 

The research team stated, “All the lions responded for shorter durations to urine odors that were exposed to the environment for longer periods”.

All the results provide evidence that lions perceive urine odors as their primary mode of communication. Urine odor has the potential to signal another lion’s sex, social group, and age. Urine is a crucial component in olfactory communication in lions and other cats.

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