A ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) enjoying a lunch of salad greens. Photographed at the Bronx Zoo.
When I first walked into the Bronx Zoo’s recently-constructed Madagascar exhibit I was greeted by an unpleasant, but not unfamiliar, odor. It smelled like the ancient gym mats of my old high school’s “wrestling room”; foam rubber pads that contained the sweat of several generations of pubescent grapplers. Yet the pungent stench in the zoo came from an entirely different kind of primate; lemurs.
Scents mean a lot to lemurs. They are strepsirrhine primates, or have wet, dog-like nostrils, and the enlarged olfactory centers of their brains suggest that they are more attuned to smells than we are. I can only imagine what the exhibit smells like to a lemur.
This sensitivity to smells can have its drawbacks, though. Ring-tailed lemurs often have “stink fights” in which they start by rubbing their scent glands on the tips of their tails. They will then crack their tails like little whips, sending the arrow of odor towards their opponent. The one who can withstand the primate funk for the longest wins. From what I hear from keepers at zoos, it is for this very reason that you want to stay in the good graces of lemurs.