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Animal Sex: The Scent of a Woman

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Across the animal world, creatures from insects to mammals release and receive sexual pheromones -- scent hormones -- signaling to the opposite sex that they're "in the mood." Males will travel miles, following the scent trail of a female. A female who wouldn't have given the time of day to some guy will suddenly find him very attractive. In fact, all she can think about is having his babies-and it all began with a whiff and a little chemistry.

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing

But what about humans? Are we unconsciously at the mercy of sexual pheromones like the rest of the animal kingdom? Are we busy sending and receiving "I'm interested and available" signals to Mr. or Ms. Right across a crowded room, even if we don't know it?

According to an article in the New Scientist, there is no clear understanding of how human pheromones -- if they exist -- might affect our brains, since, unlike other animals, we have no actively functioning vomeronasal organ -- VNO -- the organ animals use to detect pheromones. Although we have something resembling a VNO, it doesn't appear to be connected to the brain; so: no brain, no reaction, no resulting behavior. It may just be that we left this method of communication behind in our ancestral past, in favor of our more highly evolved visual and verbal skills. It seems we do as good a job, if not better, attracting our perspective mates, by what we say, how we look, and how we behave.

Animals make their own "perfume"

In the scent-loving animal world, pheromones are "manufactured" by animals as the aphrodisiacs of their courtship. And they are not only airborne; they can also be secreted in saliva, sweat and urine. As Adrian Forsyth points out in A Natural History of Sex, white-tailed deer and elk bucks will give off their own perfume by urinating and ejaculating on the ground and then wallowing in it. This drives the females wild. The male porcupine showers his beloved in his urine, soaking her in his scent, to get her aroused. Rabbits and hares leap into the air and from that vantage point, spray their desired ones in urine.

And now, human ingenuity has turned animal pheromones to practical, commercial use. A product called "Boar Mate" has been created, which farmers spray on boars to get them interested in mating with sows. The only ingredient in Boar Mate is the hormone androsterone, which is found in pig saliva, and is a powerful, sexually seductive chemical that is irresistible to male and female swine.  (Interestingly, androsterone has also been found in human male urine and in the sweat emitted from male armpits.) 

Eau de people

Just when you were ready to believe humans don't send and receive sex pheromones, new research shows that some animal species detect pheromones using their olfactory system. So, it may turn out that animals and humans are not so different in this respect than we seem to think!

New brain-imaging studies suggest that humans may indeed respond to sex pheromones. In one such study, women who were asked to smell sweat-drenched pads that had been worn in male armpits showed a reaction in the primitive part of their brains, where sexual feelings originate.

More studies will need to be done to prove the relationship between our secreted hormones and sexual arousal. But if these pheromones get identified, duplicated and manufactured -- like Boar Mate -- then perfume that actually is effective could be a dangerous thing. Imagine walking along the street and suddenly you get a whiff of male cologne; your knees buckle, your thoughts become clouded, and all you can think about is a little afternoon delight. You turn your head to find the source of that compelling scent and you find a street full of women, all turning in the same direction. Men!

Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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