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Social odours covary with bacterial community in the anal secretions of wild meerkats

Abstract : The fermentation hypothesis for animal signalling posits that bacteria dwelling in an animal’s scent glands metabolize the glands’ primary products into odorous compounds used by the host to communicate with conspecifics. There is, however, little evidence of the predicted covariation between an animal’s olfactory cues and its glandular bacterial communities. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, we first identified the volatile compounds present in ‘pure’ versus ‘mixed’ anal-gland secretions (‘paste’) of adult meerkats (Suricata suricatta) living in the wild. Low-molecular-weight chemicals that likely derive from bacterial metabolism were more prominent in mixed than pure secretions. Focusing thereafter on mixed secretions, we showed that chemical composition varied by sex and was more similar between members of the same group than between members of different groups. Subsequently, using next-generation sequencing, we identified the bacterial assemblages present in meerkat paste and documented relationships between these assemblages and the host’s sex, social status and group membership. Lastly, we found significant covariation between the volatile compounds and bacterial assemblages in meerkat paste, particularly in males. Together, these results are consistent with a role for bacteria in the production of sex- and group-specific scents, and with the evolution of mutualism between meerkats and their glandular microbiota.
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Sarah Leclaire, Staffan Jacob, Lydia Greene, George Dubay, Christine Drea. Social odours covary with bacterial community in the anal secretions of wild meerkats. Scientific Reports, Nature Publishing Group, 2017, 7, pp.3240. ⟨10.1038/s41598-017-03356-x⟩. ⟨hal-02979624⟩

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