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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The incredible rightness of stinking

Three nights before the puma heeded the call of the canned rabbit, a gray fox visited the mossy rock. The initial temptation was probably the distressed voice in the tree, but fox found something on the rock far more alluring -- a brown smudge of goo -- commercial beaver scent. It's made from the beaver's castor glands and their contents. Four weeks earlier I had dabbed the moss with a half-teaspoon of the stuff.

Beavers scent-mark their mud mounds with castoreum. It's strange sweet smell is due to large amounts of phenolic compounds. Like other animal musks, it is also used as a fixative for perfumes. A manufacturer of tincture of castoreum advises men to use it when they want "to regain sexual vitality" or "to face the social context with the wild energy of the trapper". Sounds versatile.

Back to the fox…it arrived at 8:32 PM , and its tryst with the goo lasted five minutes. The camera photographed the episode about every 18 seconds.

When fox wasn't sliding its neck over the scent it sniffed with the rapt concentration dogs devote to stinky things ("Don’t bug me right now. Can't you see I'm busy?").

But something out there in the dark was distracting fox from the intimate ritual.

Fox's parting act was to leave a deposit…a fecal deposit. "I've been here. I 've absorbed the smell. Now I leave my smell." He had been eating manzanita berries (rather dry and mealy at this time of year).

I don’t believe the critical experiment has yet been performed on what advantage members of the dog family gain from anointing themselves with smelly things. One theory is that the foreign scent makes the animal smell interesting to its peers.

Whatever the function, when fox left it probably felt the incredible rightness of stinking.

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