Perioral secretions enable complex social signaling in African mole-rats (genus Fukomys)

Subterranean common mole-rats of the genus Fukomys (family Bathyergidae) live in large, cooperatively-breeding families. Odor cues have been hypothesized to play an important role in mediating social behaviors in the underground ecotope, but only little is known about the role of olfactory signaling in burrowing mammals. Here we characterize the so far neglected perioral glands of Fukomys and other African mole-rats as an important source of olfactory social information. Histology demonstrates these structures to be derived sebaceous glands that are developed regardless of sex and reproductive status. However, gland activity is higher in Fukomys males, leading to sexually dimorphic patterns of stain and clotting of the facial pelage. Behavioral assays revealed that conspecifics prefer male but not female perioral swabs over scent samples from the back fur and that male sebum causes similar attraction as anogenital scent, a known source of social information in Fukomys. Finally, we assessed volatile compounds in the perioral sebum of the giant mole-rat (Fukomys mechowii) via GCxGC-MS-based metabolomic profiling. Volatiles display pronounced sex-specific signatures but also allow to differentiate between intrasexual reproductive status groups. These different lines of evidence suggest that mole-rat perioral glands provide complex odor signals which play a crucial role in social communication.


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