Odour signals major histocompatibility complex genotype in an Old World monkey

Joanna M. Setchell, Stefano Vaglio, Kristin M. Abbott, Jacopo Moggi-Cecchi, Francesca Boscaro, Giuseppe Pieraccini, Leslie A. Knapp

Abstract

The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is an extraordinarily diverse cluster of genes that play a key role in the immune system. MHC gene products are also found in various body secretions, leading to the suggestion that MHC genotypes are linked to unique individual odourtypes that animals use to assess the suitability of other individuals as potential mates or social partners. We investigated the relationship between chemical odour profiles and genotype in a large, naturally reproducing population of mandrills, using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and MHC genotyping. Odour profiles were not linked to the possession of particular MHC supertypes. Sex influenced some measures of odour diversity and dominance rank influenced some measures of odour diversity in males, but not in females. Odour similarity was strongly related to similarity at the MHC, and, in some cases, to pedigree relatedness. Our results suggest that odour provides both a cue of individual genetic quality and information against which the receiver can compare its own genotype to assess genetic similarity. These findings provide a potential mechanism underlying mate choice for genetic diversity and MHC similarity as well as kin selection.

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