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Lemurs Use Latrines to Communicate

Oct 16, 2014 01:11 PM EDT
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white-footed sporty lemur
In the world of white-footed sportive lemurs, public latrines are commonly used to communicate with one another, a new study shows.
(Photo : Hajarimanitra Rambeloarivony/DPZ)

In the world of white-footed sportive lemurs, public latrines are commonly used to communicate with one another, a new study shows.

While this may seem a bizarre equivalent to water cooler talk, it serves as an unconventional, yet effective, means of exchanging information. In particular, the urine left on latrine trees serves as a method to maintain contact with family members, while also being a means to inform an intruder that there is a male that will defend his territory.

In the animal kingdom, using a public place to dump your waste is actually pretty common. And for white-footed sportive lemurs (Lepilemur leucopus) in southern Madagascar, instead of writing on the bathroom walls, they use scent-marks in order to communicate with their own kind. Because little is known about why primates in particular use the same latrines over and over, the researchers set out to investigate this phenomenon among the nocturnal tree-dwellers.

In their recently published study, Iris Dröscher and Peter Kappeler from the German Primate Center (DPZ) spent over 1,000 hours watching the toilet habits of 14 radio-collared adult sportive lemurs.

For white-footed sportive lemurs, family members, despite living in the same territory, don't interact all that much. Along with parents and offspring, pair-partners also don't maintain close contact, refraining from sleeping in the same tree or foraging together. However, latrines seem to be the agreed upon place of meeting, most likely as a way to maintain familiarity and social bonding among members of a social unit, who otherwise have very little contact with each other.

In addition, male lemurs like to hang out at latrines more often, and especially at night when an intruder is afoot.

"This indicates that latrine use in this primate species should also be connected to mate defense," Dröscher explained in a statement.

"Scent marks transmit a variety of information such as sexual and individual identity and may function to signal an individual's presence and identity to others," she added. "Latrines therefore serve as information exchange centers of individual-specific information."

The study was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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