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Elephant Pheromones & Human's Sixth Sense

Media Release

23 December 2005

NZ Research into Elephant Pheromones paves way to understanding Human Sixth Sense

New research into the ways animals signal each other, involving The University of Auckland, Auckland Zoo and HortResearch New Zealand, will be published this week in leading international science journal Nature.

Male Asian elephants are famed for their annual bouts of heightened sexual activity and aggression, called 'musth', during which they produce a notoriously pungent cocktail of chemicals to advertise their mating status.

The jury is out whether humans have the ability to communicate using pheromones but the research into elephants is considered a significant step forward in the understanding of this signaling in mammals.

The research from The University of Auckland and Oregon Health & Science University shows the pheromone recipe used by elephants is unexpectedly complex. The researchers found that more mature males impress females by including a balance of different versions of a particular pheromone called frontalin, which exists in two molecular 'mirror-image' forms.

Dr Dave Greenwood, Honorary Associate Professor at the University's School of Biological Science and the study's lead author, says the exact chemical blend of the pheromone emitted by older male elephants influences both a female elephant's interest in mating and how other surrounding elephants behave.

"We found the frontalin is released by the elephants in specific ratios that depend on the animal's age and stage of musth. We also found that alterations in those ratios elicit different responses in not only in female elephants, but also in the other male elephants nearby the male emitting the pheromone.

"We were certainly surprised by the results. This is the first example, in mammals, of the use of this very precise signaling and ratio of chemical compounds in signaling.

"All of the responses to the pheromone are such as trumpeting, running away, circling are translatable at the basic level to other animals including humans."

Dr Greenwood worked closely throughout the study with Dr Elizabeth Rasmussen a Professor of Environmental & Biomolecular Systems at the Oregon Heath & Sciences University.

Other collaborators on the study were Dan Comeskey and Martin B. Hunt at HortResearch, New Zealand. Elephants used in the study were from the Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Arkansas, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, Auckland Zoo and the Oregon Zoo.

The researchers hope to use the study's results to better understand how pheromones move from the source elephant to the recipient where they bind to receptor proteins and eventually trigger behavioral responses.


For further information contact:

Dr Dave Greenwood
School of Biological Science
University of Auckland

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