How Do Rhinos Communicate? — Chromatography Explores

Mar 03 2017 Comments 0

Communication is one of the most important things animals — including humans — can do. Hunting for a mate, searching for food or warning of danger — the way we express ourselves to our fellow creatures takes many forms and all are important.

For humans, speaking and listening are undoubtedly important, but so is reading and touch — and I’m reliably informed that visual clues are important, although reading body language has somewhat passed me by. Animals rely on many different communication methods including some that mirror human ways of communication like vocalization, body language — but animals also rely more on the sense of smell than humans do. And recent research suggests that it isn’t just sweet smells that animals rely on.

Would you smell your neighbour's poo?

It is widely known that many animals communicate using urine — anyone with a dog will know their dog’s fascination with sniffing their friend or foes urine on the telegraph pole they pass every day. But now scientists from South Africa and Germany have looked at dung — and seen what use it might have in the way rhinos communicate with each other.

In an article — Dung odours signal sex, age, territorial and oestrous state in white rhinos — in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team report on how rhinos sniff each other’s poo to find out what is happening in the vicinity. Unsurprisingly perhaps, not much is known about how animals use each other’s dung for communication, so any contribution made to dung knowledge is likely to be welcomed.

Collecting poo

The researchers collected white rhino dung from over 200 different rhinos living in many different populations or groups. The dung was collected from middens — or dung hills — that the animals return to regularly. The dung contains chemicals — volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) — that allows rhinos to inform other rhinos about their age, sex and whether they are ready to mate.

They used gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to analyse the chemicals given off by the dung. GC-MS is probably the primary technique for analysing VOCs and is used in many different fields as discussed in the article, The Benefits of GC/MS Coupled with a Headspace Trap to Monitor Volatile Organic Compounds in the Production of Beer.

It’s thought that rhinos use middens as collective defecation sites so that all rhinos can share the information — rhinos have limited vision and rely on their sense of smell much more than humans. So, the middens are their equivalent Facebook — the social media of the rhino world.

Which would you prefer, Facebook or dung?

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