Young male elephants produce sweet secretions before starting to stink.
A male Asian elephant's smell switches from mellifluous to malodorous as he matures, say researchers. A honeyed aroma keeps young males out of trouble; a rank pong signals their readiness for sex and violence.
Musth is the pachyderm equivalent of US college students' spring break. From their late teens onwards, male elephants' testosterone levels surge for a month each year, making them sex-crazed and aggressive.
For males in their early teens, musth is a much sweeter experience. They smell "like a mixture of flowers", says Bets Rasmussen, who studies chemical communication at Oregon Health and Science University in Beaverton. Ancient Hindu poetry describes bees flocking to these secretions, which are produced by a gland just below an elephant's eye.
Young males' exudates do indeed contain several chemicals also present in honey, Rasmussen and her colleagues have found1. Indians have long recognized this state, giving it the Hindi name 'moda'.
Moda males seem to be broadcasting their immaturity and unwillingness to fight for dominance and mates. Mature males ignore the sweet smells of youth, the researchers found. And the young males steer clear of musth odours.
A 25-year old bull in musth "smells like a thousand male goats in a pen", says Rasmussen. "It's acrid and very penetrating - if you get some on your finger it won't wash off. It really is stinky." Males moving from moda to musth smell of a clover and skunk cocktail.
Elephants live in close-knit, long-lasting groups, and are in constant communication. Moda smells might indicate that a male is growing up, but not yet fully mature, says Rasmussen. She is now investigating whether African elephants go through moda.
Rasmussen, L. E. L., Riddle, H. S & Krishnamurthy, V. Mellifluous matures to malodorous in musth. Nature 415, 975 - 976 (2002).