Pheromones - our long-distance messengers

Pheromones – our long-distance messengers

Pheromones have been called ‘the pack animals of desire’. They’re chemical messengers that use our sense of smell as a vital route of communication between everything from couples to pigs and truffles.

What are pheromones?

Pheromones are essentially hormones. But where hormones are released into the body pheromones are released into the environment. Here they act on other members of our species and influence them from a distance.

How do they do that?

Perhaps one of the strongest examples was one of the earliest discovered, in the silkworm moth. The female silkworm moth can release a substance from a gland on her abdomen that male silkworms find irresistible. So powerful is this chemical, called bombykol, that if a female silkworm released her lifetime supply in one go it would attract 1,000,000,000,000 males to her.

Is it only insects that use these chemical messengers?

Humans still produce and respond to pheromones every day, and they form a central part of what is termed our ‘sexual chemistry’ with other people.

This is the process behind ‘T-shirt’ dating, where you wear a T-shirt without using deodorant or perfume for 2 days. At the end of that you either send your T-shirt back to the dating company, or hand it in at a speed dating event, and potential partners get to smell it. If they find your natural smell attractive, and you find theirs the same, then the idea is that you’re more likely to be fundamentally a good match.

It may sound strange but the evidence is there for it the other way too. When people lose their sense of smell they can find it difficult to maintain intimacy, and generate bonds in other relationships too. This is another reason why so many people with anosmia can face relationship difficulties.

What’s this about pigs and truffles?

Truffle hunters in the forests of France have traditionally preferred to use sows to find the valuable fungus in the roots of oaks. Researchers have now found that truffles actually contain the same pheromone as found in the saliva of aroused boars, but in significantly larger amounts.

When the sow drops down to point to the truffle, she is in fact readying herself for a boar who isn’t there. Just like us and the silk-moth she can’t avoid acting on pheromones.

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