A new study suggests that rhinos communicate about their gender, age and sexual availability through communal dung heaps.

Scientists have found that rhinos use communal dung heaps to communicate with each other.
Scientists have found that rhinos use communal dung heaps to communicate with each other.

Can rhinos really communicate with each other by sniffing dung?

Three scientists from South Africa and Germany think so. They say white rhino communal dung piles contain a wealth of information about the animal. The dunghills are "social networks" that help rhinos understand the community they live in and alter their behaviour appropriately.

How did the scientists reach this conclusion?

The trio extracted air from around dung pats of free-roaming white rhinos in South Africa's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Samples were then analysed and the team recreated dung smell of territorial males and of females in heat. They then spread the synthetic odours around the park to mimic fresh dung deposits.

How did rhinos react?

The territorial males, which are solitary, displayed different behaviours in response to distinct smells.

When the odour was that of an intruder bull, the males revisited the dung pile often to keep close tabs on the movements of a potential rival.

Faced with the female-mimicking smell, the males spent a lot more time sniffing the odour advertising sexual readiness.

Can we really call this social networking?

The findings of the study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that by analysing 150 dung odour samples from white rhinos, scientists were able to determine the animal's age, sex, whether it was a territorial male and at which stage of reproduction females were at.

"It is likely that such sites are used in the same way we use social networking, to read the posts of others in their network and to leave posts," the study said

"This is a vital step towards understanding why many mammals use communal defecation sites."

Is this a significant breakthrough?

It gives more insight into the data-transmitting role of dung which has been unclear until now. It also suggests some purpose on why animals defecate in communal areas.

"As many other mammals defecate communally, olfactory communication via dung odours is likely a widespread phenomenon," the study said.

It is well known that animals communicate through chemical messages transmitted in urine, or scent glands which they use to mark their territory, attract prey or mates and scare intruders.

Source: AFP