Social olfaction in marine mammals

Wild female Australian sea lions can identify their pup's scent

Benjamin J. Pitcher, Robert G. Harcourt, Benoist Schaal, Isabelle Charrier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

30 Citations (Scopus)


Historically, anatomical evidence has suggested that marine mammals are anosmic or at best microsmatic, i.e. absent or reduced olfactory capabilities. However, these neuroanatomical considerations may not be appropriate predictors for the use of olfaction in social interactions. Observations suggest that pinnipeds may use olfaction in mother-pup interactions, accepting or rejecting pups after naso-nasal contact. Such maternal-offspring recognition is a favourable area for investigating the involvement of odours in social recognition and selectivity, as females are evolutionarily constrained to direct resources to filial young. However, there is no experimental, morphological or chemical evidence to date for the use of olfaction in social contexts and for individual odour recognition abilities in pinnipeds. Here, we report unequivocal evidence that Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) females can differentiate between the odour of their own pup and that of another, in the absence of any other distinguishing cues. This study demonstrates individual olfactory recognition in a free-ranging wild mammal and is clear evidence of the social function of olfaction in a marine mammal. This journal is

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-62
Number of pages3
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2011

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