Communicating by bacteria

Animals can leave messages for each other by way of their dung; hyenas certainly do. Research has now demonstrated that bacteria are the actual message carriers.
Hyenas are among the animals that use their excrement to leave messages for others of their species. The nasty-smelling heaps in the grass contain much information to be ‘read’ by the other animals. It can be likened to a bulletin board showing who is in the area and how a hyena is doing.

Scientists from Michigan State University investigated hyenas and faeces in Kenya. The study included diverse groups of both spotted and striped hyenas. It was discovered that the dung contained many more bacteria than expected, and that the bacteria are responsible for communicating the messages. These bacteria come from the hyenas’ scent glands. Great variation is seen among the specific hyena species, sex, age and fertility. Faeces with a certain scent profile left by the bacteria tell very clearly which individual produced that dung.

The article was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.