Experimental evaluation of spontaneous olfactory discrimination in two nocturnal primates (Microcebus murinus and M. lehilahytsara)
Solitary species often employ chemocommunication to facilitate mate localization. In the solitarily foraging, nocturnal mouse lemurs (Microcebus spp.), females advertise their short period of estrus acoustically and by increased scent marking, whereas males search widely for receptive females. Both sexes can be trained by operant conditioning to discriminate conspecific from heterospecific urine scent. However, it is not known, if males during and outside the reproductive season show different spontaneous interest in conspecific female urine, and if urine from estrous females elicits a higher investigation response than that from diestrous females. We established a spontaneous discrimination paradigm and quantified olfactory investigation responses of 21 captive male mouse lemurs of M. lehilahytsara and M. murinus when presenting 1 conspecific and 1 heterospecific female urine odor sample simultaneously. Overall, M. murinus investigated stimuli significantly longer than M. lehilahytsara. Moreover, males of M. murinus showed significantly longer olfactory investigation at conspecific urine samples during but not outside the reproductive season. This indicates that female urinary cues are spontaneously discriminated by male M. murinus and that this discrimination is more relevant during the reproductive season. However, males of both species did not show different responses toward urine samples from estrous versus diestrous females. Finally, male age did not correlate with the overall duration of olfactory investigation, and investigation levels were similar when testing with fresh or frozen urine samples. In conclusion, this new spontaneous discrimination paradigm provides a useful additional tool to study olfactory communication of nocturnal primates from the receiver's perspective.