Andrea Marcillo, Anja Widdig, Claudia Birkemeyer, Ruben Holland, Marta Manser, Brigitte M. Weiß
Olfaction is a central aspect of mammalian communication, providing information about individual attributes such as identity, sex, group membership or genetic quality. Yet, the chemical underpinnings of olfactory cues remain little understood, one of the reasons being the difficulty in obtaining high quality samples for chemical analysis.
In this study, we adjusted and evaluated the use of thermal desorption (TD) tubes, commonly used in plant metabolomic and environmental studies, for non-invasive sampling of mammalian body odour. We obtained chemical profiles of meerkat (Suricata suricatta) body odour samples, using TD tubes analysed with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.
TD tubes captured a wide range of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, including compounds likely originating from the target animals. Adjustment of sampling parameters (distance, volume, flow rate, interruption of sampling) to increase the feasibility for a non-invasive application yielded samples of adequate quality. However, to minimize the variability between samples, sampling parameters should be kept constant and samples should be collected when no conspecifics are close-by.
The method was sensitive enough to pick up population differences in the chemical profiles of two captive groups of meerkats, demonstrating its applicability to biological questions. With sufficiently habituated animals, the method is applicable non-invasively, allowing short- and long-term studies on a wide range of questions, including e.g. chemical signatures of kinship, diet, individual health or reproductive state.