There are some words that sound gross but mean something nice, like pulchritudinous (which actually means beautiful, despite sounding like a foot condition). Then there are words that pretty much fit the bill, like the recently researched action of flehmen, whereby a prospective male suitor giraffe will gargle a female’s urine like a sommelier slurping wine. A suitably unsexy name for a suitably unsexy chat up approach, but one that’s necessary for giraffes who don’t have anything else to go on.
Many other mammalian species get a helping hand from estrous signals like going into heat and releasing pheromones. Giraffes (Giraffa giraffa angolensis) don’t have this, which has seen these animals evolve an approach in which the males invite the females to urinate for around five seconds so that they can taste the golden shower for indicators that their reproductive window is near.
A new study into the behavior comes following observations at the Namutoni waterholes, Etosha National Park in Namibia. As for how the unusual love language begins, it requires an eager male and a willing female.
“Males provoke females to urinate by sniffing and prodding them. If the female is going to urinate, she first widens her hindleg stance and sets a stable posture, and then urinates,” wrote the study authors. “The male gathers the urine in his mouth with his tongue and then frequently performs flehmen to assess her estrous status.”
Flehmen requires a stream of urine as the researchers observed that males weren’t interested in any samples already deposited on the ground. Instead, they would poke their heads around the female’s genitals until she release some urine, which the males could then inhale with an open mouth and curled lip to get the pee to where it needed to be.
Specifically, that appears to be the vomeronasal organ that sits above the mouth cavity and enables the male to detect components of the urine that suggest the female may soon be fertile. Tasting urine for fertility signs like this isn’t unique, with dogs and horses doing a similar thing, but what is unique is that a giraffe can’t use urine that’s on the ground.
Why? Reaching the ground is a much bigger deal for giraffes who have evolved an extreme head and neck morphology. Lowering their head to drink can be risky for many reasons including predation, something which the researchers observed during their study as some lions took out one of the group. It figures, then, that avoiding bending all that way down to taste some urine is also an adaptation to survive the mating season.
By encouraging the females to instead release a fresh sample, the males avoid traveling their noggins all the way to the ground while also getting an idea of whether or not she’s interested. A female that gives up her urine willingly is probably on the same page; anyone holding back probably doesn’t want to mate with you.
The study is the most extensive into flehmen and found that it typically lasts for around three to nine seconds with the male starting off with his muzzle in the stream of urine but then completing the taste test from a more upright position. Willing females would help them out by adopting a wide hind-legged stance before beginning to urinate.
So, there’s a fun fact to share with a date this Valentine’s Day. You’re welcome.
The study was published in the journal Animals.