DUKE (US)—A new study finds hormonal contraception changes the chemical signals sent by female ring-tailed lemurs, making them less attractive to potential mates.
“Hormonal contraception is known to alter the attractiveness of scent cues in humans and the presence of fertility cues in other primates,” says Christine Drea, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “We wanted to understand all the ways in which contraception changes scent cues and the subsequent way these animals might interact with each other.”
Details of the work are reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
A dozen female lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center were given monthly injections of the contraceptive Medroxyprogesterone acetate, or MPA, (marketed as Depo-Provera by Pfizer).
Drea’s chemical analysis found that they expressed different scent molecules than “intact” females, significantly altering the signals females send about themselves to social contacts and prospective partners. In other words, they smell funny.
The findings are part of a series of studies that Drea’s group has done using chromatography to tease apart the chemical components of the rich stew of scents produced by lemurs.
A female lemur’s scent normally conveys not only her fertility status, but also information about identity, her relatedness to others and her genetic homozygosity, an indicator of in-breeding.
If all of that information is scrambled by hormonal contraception, it may in part explain changed patterns of aggression that other studies have noted when captive primates are treated with contraceptives, Drea says.
In this study, the 12 females served as both intact and contracepted females by being sampled in each condition. Under contraception, the females were found to express some scents that intact females do not, and to express scents in different proportions.
The contracepted females also tended to lose their scent individuality.
“There’s something very different about these gals,” Drea says. “If animals are figuring out who their kin are by scent, she no longer smells like her brother.”
In behavioral tests, the 13 males in the study showed clear preferences for the scents of intact females, spending less time investigating odor samples from contracepted females.
The bigger question is whether these findings are relevant for our own species, Drea says. Humans are known to send and receive olfactory cues about hormonal status and possible compatibility.
“One has to wonder if human mate choice might be affected in some of the same ways it has been in these primates,” Drea adds.
The research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
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