Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 445–452 | Cite as

Scent marks of rodents can provide information to conspecifics

  • Michael H. FerkinEmail author


For a scent mark to be informative it must provide a reliable, honest signal that allows individuals that detect it to predict fitness tradeoffs if they choose or not choose to respond to it. I argue that scent marks provide a great deal of information about the sender to receivers. The manner in which an animal uses this information to make decisions will depend on the context and manner in which it encounters these scent marks. Receivers can use the information found in the scent marks and odors to locate the donor, learn its identity, determine the donor’s phenotype or genotype, and assess whether the scent marks were encountered earlier by conspecifics. For receivers to make potentially informed decisions, when they encounter the scent marks of conspecifics with whom they have had different experiences across a variety of contexts higher level cognitive processing involving procedural memory, episodic memory, autobiographical memory and making judgements of numerical discrimination would be required. Senders should have some insight into the receivers to increase the likelihood that the targets respond appropriately to the scent mark by reducing uncertainty. The sender’s state or the current state of the environment and the context will affect when and where the scent marks were deposited. Decisions to deposit scent marks and respond to them must represent a tradeoff in the benefits and costs to the sender and receivers in terms of their fitness and survival. The actual tradeoff should be context dependent and reflect the experience, physiology, and life history constraints affecting the receiver. Calculating these tradeoffs likely involves some cognitive processing and requires some sort of information transfer between the sender and the receiver.


Information Odor communication Scent marks Signal value 



I thank Dr. Javier delBarco-Trillo, Karl Rohrer, Ryan Scauzillo, Adam Ferkin, and two anonymous reviewers for reading earlier versions of this manuscript. The writing of this manuscript was supported by funds from the Jack H. Morris Distinguished Professorship.


The writing of this manuscript was supported by funds from the Jack H. Morris Distinguished Professorship.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The Author, Michael Ferkin, declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Specifically, I followed Animal Care Protocol 0731, which was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at The University of Memphis, and guidelines of the American Society of Mammalogists for research involving live mammals. This study does not contain any studies with human participants performed by the author.


  1. Arakawa H, Blanchard DC, Blanchard RJ (2015) Central oxytocin regulates social familiarity and scent marking behavior that involves amicable odor signals between male mice. Physiol Behav 146:36–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Boonstra R, Xia X, Pavone L (1993) Mating system of the meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Behav Ecol 4:83–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cheetham SA, Thom MD, Jury F, Ollier WER, Beynon RJ, Hurst JL (2007) The genetic basis of individual-recognition signals in the mouse. Curr Biol 17:1771–1777CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dall SRX, Giraldeau L-A, Olsson O, McNamara JM, Stephens DW (2005) Information and its use by animals in evolutionary ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 20:187–193CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Danchin E, Giraldeau L-A, Valone TJ, Wagner RH (2004) Public information from nosy neighbors to cultural evolution. Science 305:487–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Danchin E, Giraldeau L-A, Valone TJ, Wagner RH (2005) Defining the concept of public information-response. Science 308:355–356Google Scholar
  7. Danchin E, Giraldeau L-A, Wagner RH (2008) An information-driven approach to behavior. In: Danchin E, Giraldeau L-A, Cezilly F (eds) Behavioural ecology. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Dröscher I, Kappeler PM (2014) Maintenance of familiarity and social bonding via communal latrine use in a solitary primate (Lepilemur leucopus). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 68:2043–2058CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dugatkin LA, Godin JGJ (1992) Reversal of female mate choice by copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 249:179–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Ferkin MH (2011) Odor-related behavior and cognition in meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus (Arvicolidae, Rodentia). Folia Zool 60:262–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ferkin MH (2015) The response of rodents to scent marks: Four broad hypotheses. Horm Behav 68:43–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ferkin MH (2018) Odor communication and mate choice in rodents. Biology 7:13. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ferkin MH, Ferkin AC (2017) The number of male conspecifics affects the odor preferences and the copulatory behavior of male meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Behaviour 154:413–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Ferkin MH, Leonard ST (2010) Self-grooming as a form of olfactory communication in meadow voles and prairie voles (Microtus spp.). In: Kalueff AV, LaPorte JL, Bergner C (eds) Neurobiology of grooming behavior. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 19–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ferkin MH, Pierce AA (2007) Perspectives on over-marking: is it good to be on top? J Ethol 25:107–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ferkin MH, Burda J, O’Connor MP, Lee CJ (1995) The persistence of two sex specific of odors in meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Ethology 101:228–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ferkin MH, Sorokin ES, Johnston RE, Lee CJ (1997) Attractiveness of scents varies with protein content in the diet of meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Anim Behav 53:133–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ferkin MH, Dunsavage J, Johnston RE (1999) Meadow voles can discriminate between the top and bottom scent of an over-mark and prefer the top scent. J Comp Psychol 113:43–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ferkin MH, Ferkin DA, Ferkin BD, Vlautin CT (2010) Olfactory experience affects the response of meadow voles to the opposite-sex scent donor of mixed-sex over-marks. Ethology 116:821–831CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ferkin MH, delBarco-Trillo J, Petrulis A (2017) Communication by chemical signals: physiological mechanisms, ontogeny and learning, function, evolution and cognition. In: Pfaff DW, Joëls M (eds) Hormones, brain, and behavior, 3rd edn. Elsevier Press, Oxfordshire, pp 285–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fischer J (2010) Where is the information in animal communication? In: Menzel R, Fischer J (eds) Animal thinking: contemporary issues in in comparative cognition. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 151–182Google Scholar
  22. Fisher HS, Swaisgood RR, Fitch-Snyder H (2003) Countermarking by male pygmy lorises (Nycticebus pygmaeus): do females use odour cues to select mates with high competitive ability? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 53:123–130Google Scholar
  23. Franklin S, Ferkin MH (2006) An ontology for comparative cognition: a functional approach. Comp Cogn Behav Rev 1:36–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Franklin S, Ferkin MH (2008) Using broad cognitive models to apply computational intelligence to animal cognition. In: Smolinski TG, Milanova MM, Hassanien A-E (eds) Applications of computational intelligence in biology: current trends and open problems. Springer, Berlin, pp 363–394CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Giraldeau A-L, Valone TJ, Templeton JJ (2002) Potential disadvantages of using socially acquired information. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 357:1559–1566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Green JP, Holmes AM, Davidson AJ, Paterson S, Stockley P, Beynon RJ, Hurst JL (2015) The genetic basis of kin recognition in a cooperatively breeding mammal. Curr Biol 25:2631–2641CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Halpin ZT (1986) Individual odors among mammals: origins and functions. Adv Study Behav 16:39–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Heymann EW (2000) Spatial patterns of scent marking in wild moustached tamarins, Saguinus mystax: No evidence for a territorial function. Anim Behav 60:723–730CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hobbs NJ, Ferkin MH (2011) Dietary protein content affects the responses of meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus, to over-marks. Acta Ethol 14:57–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hobbs NJ, Ferkin MH (2012) The response of male meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus, to same- and mixed-sex over-marks depends on the reproductive state of the top- and bottom-female scent donors. Behaviour 149:705–722CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hobbs NJ, Finger AA, Ferkin MH (2012) Effects of food availability on proceptivity: a test of the reproduction at all costs and metabolic fuels hypotheses. Behav Proc 91:192–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Johnston RE (2003) Chemical communication in rodents: from pheromones to individual recognition. J Mamm 84:1141–1162CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Johnston RE, delBarco-Trillo (2009) Communication by chemical signals: behavior, social recognition, hormones and the role of the vomeronasal and olfactory systems. In: Pffaf D, Arnold AP, Fahrbach SE, Etgen AM, Rubin RT (eds) Hormones, brain, and behavior, vol 2. Elsevier Science, New York, pp 797–870Google Scholar
  34. Johnston RE, Chiang G, Tung C (1994) The information in scent over-marks of golden hamsters. Anim Behav 48:323–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Johnston RE, Munver R, Tung C (1995) Scent counter marks: selective memory for the top scent by golden hamsters. Anim Behav 49:1435–1442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Johnston RE, Sorokin ES, Ferkin MH (1997a) Female voles discriminate males’ over-marks and prefer top-scent males. Anim Behav 54:679–690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnston RE, Sorokin ES, Ferkin MH (1997b) Scent counter-marking by male meadow voles: females prefer the top-scent male. Ethology 103:443–453CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kappeler PM (1998) To whom it may concern: the transmission and function of chemical signals in Lemur catta. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 42:411–421CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kaur AW, Ackels T, Kuo T-H, Cichy A, Dey S, Hays C, Kateri M, Logan DW, Marton TF, Spehr M, Stowers L (2014) Murine pheromone proteins constitute a context-dependent combinatorial code governing multiple social behaviors. Cell 157:676–688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kohli KM, Ferkin MH (1999) Over-marking and adjacent marking are influenced by sibship in male prairie voles, Microtus ochrogaster. Ethology 105:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Leonard ST, Ferkin MH, Johnson MM (2001) The response of meadow voles to an over-mark in which the two donors differ in gonadal hormone status. Anim Behav 62:1171–1177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lotem A, Wagner RH, Balshine-Earn S (1999) The overlooked signaling component of nonsignaling behavior. Behav Ecol 10:209–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Morand-Ferron J, Doligez B, Dall SRX, Reader SM (2010) Social information use. Encycl Anim Behav 3:242–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pruett-Jones S (1992) Independent versus nonindependent mate choice: do females copy each other? Am Nat 140:1000–1009CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Roberts SC (2007) Scent marking. In: Wolff JO, Sherman PW (eds) Rodent societies: an ecological and evolutionary perspective. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 255–266Google Scholar
  46. Roberts SA, Davidson SJ, Beynon RJ, Hurst JL (2014) Female attraction to mate scent and associative learning: the house mouse as a mammalian model. Anim Behav 97:313–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL (2017) The origin of meaning in animal signals. Anim Behav 124:339–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Smith WJ (1980) The behavior of communicating: an ethological approach. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  49. Thiessen DD (1977) Thermoenergetics and the evolution of pheromone communication. In: Sprague JM, Epstein AN (eds) Progress in psychobiology and physiological psychology, vol 7. Academic, New York, pp 91–191Google Scholar
  50. Thom MD, Hurst JL (2004) Individual recognition by scent. Ann Zool Fenn 41:765–787Google Scholar
  51. Thoß M, Luzynski K, Ante M, Miller I, Penn DJ (2015) Major urinary protein (MUP) profiles show dynamic changes rather than individual “barcode” signatures. Front Ecol Evol 3:71. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Tinnesand HV, Buesching CD, Noonan MJ, Newman C, Zedrosser A, Rosell F, Macdonald DW (2015) Will tresspassers be prosecuted or assessed according to their merits? A consilient interpretation of territoriality in a group-living carnivore, the European badger (Meles meles). PLoS One 10:e0132432CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Valone TJ (2007) From eavesdropping on performance to copying the behavior of others: a review of public information use. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 62:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wheeler BC, Searcy WA, Christiansen MH et al (2010) Communication. In: Menzel R, Fischer J (eds) Animal thinking: contemporary issues in in comparative cognition. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 187–208Google Scholar
  55. Woodward RL, Schmick MK, Ferkin MH (1999) Response of prairie voles, Microtus ochrogaster (Rodentia, Arvicolidae), to scent over-marks of two same-sex conspecifics: a test of the scent masking hypothesis. Ethology 105:1009–1017CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Woodward RL, Bartos K, Ferkin MH (2000) Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie voles (M. ochrogaster) differ in their responses to over-marks from opposite- and same-sex conspecifics. Ethology 106:979–992CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wyatt TD (2014) Pheromones and animal behavior: chemical signals and signatures. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  58. Zala SM, Potts WK, Penn DJ (2004) Scent-marking displays provide honest signals of health and infection. Behav Ecol 15:338–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of MemphisMemphisUSA

Personalised recommendations