Predators are attracted to all manner of smells. Some you might find pleasant. Others are downright disgusting.

Almost anyone who has owned a dog can attest to their delight when rolling in foul substances like rotten fish or human faeces. However, did you know that dogs can also be lured with women’s perfumes? Chanel no. 5, for example, is widely used by ‘wild dog’ trappers.

Dogs aren’t the only non-human fans of perfume. Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men is a favourite among big cats including tigers, snow leopards, cheetahs, and jaguars. In fact it’s so popular that many zoos use it enrich the environments of their captive cats. The excited response of one ocelot to the cologne was described by a researcher as “almost embarrassing”.

According to Allison Devlin, a research associate at Panthera, the cats are most likely attracted to the perfume binder, a synthetic version of civetone (a.k.a. civet oil), which is produced by small, catlike civets. At full strength civetone smells “faecal and nauseating, but when diluted it has a radiant, velvety, floral scent“.

Scientists use odours not only to enrich the lives of captive animals and trap wild ones. Odours may also be deployed to encourage wild animals to behave in a desired manner. One useful application is on scent-baited ‘hair traps’, whereby an attractant is applied to the trap’s surface. Hair is caught when the target animal rubs or rolls on it.

Below are some examples of hair trapping that has been undertaken by Biosphere’s team.

  • We’ve elicited a rolling/rubbing response from wild dingoes by applying attractants to hair traps (we have two ‘secret sauces’). The dingoes’ hairs become caught in the traps’ fibres when they rub and roll on the attractant. We’ve used this method to collect DNA for population studies, and stable isotopes to identify the habitats in which Wet Tropics dingoes hunt. As you can see in video footage, cats don’t hold the monopoly on ‘almost embarrassing’ behaviour when presented with odour attractants!
  • We formulated a batch of ‘Fatty Acid Scent’ (developed in the US as a coyote attractant) to investigate its effectiveness as a lure for dingoes. The fatty acids it contains are found in a number of biological products including rotten flesh, vomit, and sweaty feet. After discovering that there were better attractants for our purposes, we ended up with a litre of foul-smelling liquid, for which we had little use.  However, after a conversation with a colleague in Malaysia, our Principal Ecologist (Damian Morrant) realised that it might be a good general purpose attractant for the suite of mainland Malaysian predators. Damian sent it over, and we were rewarded with footage of a clouded leopard and a Malaysian tiger rubbing on our hair traps! While there’s still work to do, this lure shows great promise for wild cat research.

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