Paste marks the spot

Careful when you read this blog, you might learn sumthin’
Quite a few mammals use scent as a means of communication – to mark territory or advertise for mates – and hyenas are no exception. Hyenas do what’s called pasting. They usually do this by straddling a grass stem and then inching their way forwards so that the stem springs up and brushes against their anal gland. They project their anal gland outwards and secrete a paste onto the plant, the scent of which is extremely interesting to themselves and other hyenas. After that, other hyenas might come and paste on the same plant: overpasting.
Here are a couple of photos of Willi demonstrating pasting behaviour. Normally he does it on a favourite cornstalk but he came across another hyena pasting on these grass stems so he took the opportunity to attempt to overpaste on the same stems. You can see Willi’s anal gland protruding, but he didn’t produce any paste this time; hyenas don’t consistently produce the paste until their third year.
There are a couple of ideas out there as to why these young hyenas show pasting behaviour even though they’re not producing paste. One is that they’re taking on board the scent of other hyenas. This would be so that they’ll be identified with the group whenever hyenas come to sniff them. Another is that they might be acquiring bacteria that are necessary to producing scented paste in the future. And not only might these bacteria be necessary for producing scent, they might be necessary for producing the scent that is specific to their particular clan. Mind you, considering that young males overpaste more than young females, this doesn’t make a lot of sense – the males are the ones that will eventually leave their natal clan and join a new one, so bringing the scent of the old clan along with them might be detrimental.
Considering that Willi is not particularly adept with his pasting behaviour – sometimes his anus protrudes too late or the plant goes off to the side – I’d speculate that hyenas also need to practice this behaviour so that they can get it right in the future. It looks pretty difficult.


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