Ables, E.A., Kay, L.M. & Mateo, J.M. 2007. Rats assess degree of relatedness from human odors. Physiology & Behavior, 90, 726-732.
Despite widespread interest in the evolutionary implications of human olfactory communication, the mechanisms underlying human odor production are still poorly understood. Previous studies have demonstrated that human odor cues are related to variations in the major histocompatibility complex, but it is unclear whether odors are associated with overall genotypic variation. In this study, we investigated whether more closely related humans produce more similar odor cues. To assess objective odor qualities we tested odor similarity using rats in a habituation-discrimination paradigm. Rats were first habituated to a referent human odor and were then presented with two test odors obtained from individuals related in different degrees to the referent. Investigation times for each odor were compared. Because rats investigate novel odors longer than familiar odors, we were able to determine which test odor the rats perceived as more similar to the referent human odor. For six of ten odor donor families, rats investigated the odor of the less closely related individual significantly longer than that of the more closely related individual, and investigation durations were in the expected direction for all families. These results indicate that similarity of human odor cues is associated with degree of genetic relatedness, with more closely related humans producing more similar odor cues. This study supports the hypothesis that odor cues provide information regarding degree of relatedness and may thus affect a wide variety of human behaviors, including kin preferences, nepotism, and mate choice.