It has been postulated that bacteria are responsible for the production of many mammalian semiochemicals, including those contained in the secretions of specialized scent glands. Mammalian scent glands are warm, moist, anaerobic, organic-rich places, and are thus highly conducive to the proliferation of symbiotic bacteria. As bacteria ferment the substrates in these glands, they produce volatile odorants that seem to be critical, information-rich components of scent marks. Following seminal work of this symbiosis by Martyn Gorman and Eric Albone in the 1970s, relatively little additional research has been conducted. This is likely due to the severe limitations posed by standard culture-based microbial sampling techniques. My current primary objective is to use culture-independent molecular surveys (i.e. next-generation sequencing technologies) and contemporary, ecologically-guided culturing techniques to elucidate the mechanistic roles bacteria play in the scent marking systems, and thus the social lives, of solitary and social hyena species.
If you would like to discuss the potential effects of bacteria on animal behavior, or if you’d like pdfs of our papers, please call me at 517-884-5344, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are recent related papers from other lab groups that I highly recommend reading.
Douglas, A. & Dobson, A. 2013. Animal communication mediated by microbes: Fact or Fantasy? J Chem Ecol 39, 1149.
A commentary on the proper path to demonstrating that symbiotic microbes mediate animal chemical communication. For the most part, I concur (see Archie & Theis 2011).
Sin, Y.W., Buesching, C.D., Burke, T. & Macdonald, D.W. 2012. Molecular characterization of the microbial communities in the subcaudal gland secretion of the European badger (Meles meles). FEMS Microbiology Ecology 81, 648-659.
The European badger is an intriguing study system, and Dr. Buesching previously published very nice work detailing extensive variation in this badger’s chemical signals. Her work on badger allo-marking and its potential for promoting microbiont transmission among badgers is also recommended reading (doi:10.1163/156853903322589597; http://www.jstor.org/stable/4536370).