There are some words that sound gross but mean something nice, like pulcritudinous (which actually means beautiful, even though it sounds like a foot condition). Then there are words that fit the bill perfectly, like the recently researched action of flehmen, where a potential male giraffe suitor gargles a female’s urine like a sommelier sipping wine. An unsexy name for an unsexy but necessary approach to chat for giraffes who have nothing else to go on.
Many other mammalian species are helped by estrus signals, such as going into heat and releasing pheromones. giraffes (giraffe giraffe angolensis) doesn’t have that, which has seen these animals develop an approach in which males invite females to urinate for about five seconds so they can taste the golden rain for indicators that their reproductive window is near.
A new study into the behavior follows observations at the Namutoni waterholes in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. As for how the unusual language of love begins, it requires an eager man and a willing woman.
“Males provoke females to urinate by sniffing and nudging them. If the female is going to urinate, she first widens the posture of her hind legs and establishes a stable posture and then urinates,” the study authors wrote. “The male collects urine in his mouth with his tongue and frequently performs flehmen to assess his estrus state.”
Flehmen require a urine stream, as the researchers observed that the males were not interested in any samples already deposited in the soil. Instead, they would stick their heads into the female’s genitals until she released some urine, which the males could inhale with their mouths open and lips curled to get the pee where it needed to be.
Specifically, it appears to be the vomeronasal organ that sits above the buccal cavity and allows the male to detect urine components that suggest the female may soon be fertile. Tasting urine for fertility signs like this isn’t unique, with dogs and horses doing something similar, but what’s unique is that a giraffe can’t use urine that’s on the ground.
Why? Reaching the ground is a much bigger task for giraffes that have developed extreme head and neck morphology. Lowering your head to drink can be risky for a number of reasons, including predation, something the researchers observed during their study when some lions killed one of their pride. It follows, then, that avoiding bending down so much to taste a little urine is also an adaptation to survive the mating season.
By encouraging females to release a new specimen, males avoid traveling with their heads to the ground, while still getting an idea of whether or not she is interested. A woman who willingly gives up urination is probably on the same page; anyone holding back probably doesn’t want to mate with you.
The study is the most extensive on flehmen and found that it typically lasts about three to nine seconds with the male starting with his nose in the urine stream, but then completing the taste test from a more upright position. Willing females would help them by adopting a wide stance with their hind legs before starting to urinate.
So there’s a fun fact to share with a date this Valentine’s Day. You are welcome.
The study was published in the journal Animals.