What exactly is the flehmen response?

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 8 Comments

I am sure whilst on safari, you would have seen a large male lion sniff the ground, lift his head high and bear his teeth?

Or perhaps a zebra stallion curling his lips back exposing his teeth, almost as if he were smiling.

Well, if you have seen this but never really understood why animals engaged in such behavior, carry on reading…

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Upon finding a site of interest, perhaps the dung of a rival or urine of a potential mating partner, an animal would expose their front teeth, breathe in with the nostrils closed, and typically lift their head high in to the air.

The behaviour facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth of the animal.

flehmen, wild eye, marlon du toit, photo safari, travel, africa

The vomeronasal organ, or the Jacobson’s organ, is an auxiliary olfactory sense organ that is found in many animals. This organ is typically used to detect pheromones, chemical messengers that carry information between animals.

It is an extremely useful tool to facilitate delicate between species of both the same and at times, different kinds.

Male’s are capable of testing the reproductive status of females. This is often seen in male lions. The response to a female’s urine is often striking and makes for incredible photographic opportunity! This reaction could be carried out several times over the span of a few minutes.

flehmen, wild eye, marlon du toit, photo safari, travel, africa

Females are also believed to use the same organ and methods to synchronize conception and birth.

An animal that can make this flehmen resoonse seem rather comical is the Cape Buffalo.

flehmen, wild eye, marlon du toit, photo safari, travel, africa

The older bulls really show their age when they bare those dirty, yellow old teeth, much to the amusement of all the onlookers.

Some animals are far more subtle about the use of this specialized organs.

flehmen, wild eye, marlon du toit, photo safari, travel, africa

Have a look at elephants greeting one another. You will often see them greeting by touching the mouth of inside the mouth of the other elephant, and then bringing their trunk into their mouth and onto the jacobson’s organ itself.

So I trust you now have a far better understanding of what this sometimes strange behavior is all about.

Remember that more often than not, it makes for fantastic photographic opportunities.

Till next time,

About the Author

Marlon duToit

Passion, enthusiasm and an unquenchable thirst to explore and introduce you to our natural world’s wildlife perfectly sums up my ambitions. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Through my African adventures I kept my photographic passion alive. Behind a camera aimed at a lion or a leopard is where I am most at home, my heart skipping a beat at the mere thought of it. My intention has never been solely for recognition but for the plight of what’s left of our natural recourses. Using my love and understanding of wildlife I am able to convey to the viewer more than an image or a fleeting moment. I aim to tell a story, to bring that moment alive to you and to capture your heart through it.

Comments 8

  1. Bethany

    Great post and totally gorgeous photographs. Many a portrait of a “fierce” male lion has been built upon that flehmen response!

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      Marlon duToit

      Susan thank you very much!! And I am not entirely sure I would want to see a human in that similar posture, and would especially not wanna photograph them, ha ha!

  2. Nancy Anderson

    Marlon,
    That was totally fascinatating! I knew my cat exhibited that behavior but I did not know other animals outside the cat family exhibited it. It will be one more thing to look for and one more thing to make my pictures more interesting. Thank you for writing on this…

  3. NJ Wight

    Great post-thanks! I have been lucky to see this in lions several times, but now I really want to see a buffalo! Great capture.

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