Family is a central concept for almost all species, not only to avoid the mishap of inbreeding, but also to help each other along (nepotism). But how do promiscuous species that live together in bands avoid the risks, and gain from the benefits, when it isn't always clear who is related to whom? According to Aurélie Célérier, from the CNRS and the University of Montpellier II, France, scent could be the key with related individuals carrying similar odours. However, as Célérier and her colleagues from France and the UK explain, ‘there is no easy way to “record” and quantify the olfactory properties of objects and chemical signals,’ so the team turned to a rodent with an excellent sense of smell to see if they could distinguish ‘family’ from ‘outsiders’ (p. 1399). Testing the responses of male Swiss mice to the odours of 16 female chacma baboons, some of whom were related while others were not, the team found that the mice could distinguish between related and unrelated baboons.

So it is possible that baboons could distinguish next of kin from outsiders based on their odours, and Célérier and her colleagues are optimistic that their mouse-based ‘olfactometer’ could help us find out more about the messages that body odours send.

References

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