Smelly microbes help hyenas to communicate

Bacteria in scent glands give information about hosts’ species, sex and reproductive state.

The hordes of microbes that inhabit every nook and cranny of every animal are not just passive hitchhikers: they actively shape their hosts’ well-being and even behaviour. Now, researchers have found evidence that bacteria living in the scent glands of hyenas help to produce the smells that the animals use to identify group members and tell when females are ready to mate.

Kevin Theis, a microbial ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, had been studying hyena scent communication for several years when, after he gave a talk on the subject, someone asked him what part the bacteria might play. “I just said, ‘I don’t know’,” he says. He started investigating. Read more in Nature.