The Descent of Man

Author: Charles Darwin


With some animals, as with the notorious skunk of America, the overwhelming odour which they emit appears to serve exclusively as a defence. With shrew-mice (Sorex) both sexes possess abdominal scent-glands, and there can be little doubt, from the rejection of their bodies by birds and beasts of prey, that the odour is protective; nevertheless, the glands become enlarged in the males during the breeding-season. In many other quadrupeds the glands are of the same size in both sexes (9. As with the castoreum of the beaver, see Mr. L.H. Morgan’s most interesting work, ’The American Beaver,’ 1868, p. 300. Pallas (’Spic. Zoolog.’ fasc. viii. 1779, p. 23) has well discussed the odoriferous glands of mammals. Owen (’Anat. of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 634) also gives an account of these glands, including those of the elephant, and (p. 763) those of shrew-mice. On bats, Mr. Dobson in ’Proceedings of the Zoological Society’ 1873, p. 241.), but their uses are not known. In other species the glands are confined to the males, or are more developed than in the females; and they almost always become more active during the rutting-season. At this period the glands on the sides of the face of the male elephant enlarge, and emit a secretion having a strong musky odour. The males, and rarely the females, of many kinds of bats have glands and protrudable sacks situated in various parts; and it is believed that these are odoriferous.

The rank effluvium of the male goat is well known, and that of certain male deer is wonderfully strong and persistent. On the banks of the Plata I perceived the air tainted with the odour of the male Cervus campestris, at half a mile to leeward of a herd; and a silk handkerchief, in which I carried home a skin, though often used and washed, retained, when first unfolded, traces of the odour for one year and seven months. This animal does not emit its strong odour until more than a year old, and if castrated whilst young never emits it. (10. Rengger, ’Naturgeschichte der Saugethiere von Paraguay,’ 1830, s. 355. This observer also gives some curious particulars in regard to the odour.) Besides the general odour, permeating the whole body of certain ruminants (for instance, Bos moschatus) in the breeding-season, many deer, antelopes, sheep, and goats possess odoriferous glands in various situations, more especially on their faces. The so-called tear-sacks, or suborbital pits, come under this head. These glands secrete a semi-fluid fetid matter which is sometimes so copious as to stain the whole face, as I have myself seen in an antelope. They are "usually larger in the male than in the female, and their development is checked by castration." (11. Owen, ’Anatomy of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 632. See also Dr. Murie’s observations on those glands in the ’Proc. Zoolog. Soc.’ 1870, p. 340. Desmarest, ’On the Antilope subgutturosa, ’Mammalogie,’ 1820, p. 455.) According to Desmarest they are altogether absent in the female of Antilope subgutturosa. Hence, there can be no doubt that they stand in close relation with the reproductive functions. They are also sometimes present, and sometimes absent, in nearly allied forms. In the adult male musk-deer (Moschus moschiferus), a naked space round the tail is bedewed with an odoriferous fluid, whilst in the adult female, and in the male until two years old, this space is covered with hair and is not odoriferous. The proper musksack of this deer is from its position necessarily confined to the male, and forms an additional scent-organ. It is a singular fact that the matter secreted by this latter gland, does not, according to Pallas, change in consistence, or increase in quantity, during the rutting-season; nevertheless this naturalist admits that its presence is in some way connected with the act of reproduction. He gives, however, only a conjectural and unsatisfactory explanation of its use. (12. Pallas, ’Spicilegia Zoolog.’ fasc. xiii. 1799, p. 24; Desmoulins, ’Dict. Class. d’Hist. Nat.’ tom. iii. p. 586.)

In most cases, when only the male emits a strong odour during the breedingseason, it probably serves to excite or allure the female. We must not judge on this head by our own taste, for it is well known that rats are enticed by certain essential oils, and cats by valerian, substances far from agreeable to us; and that dogs, though they will not eat carrion, sniff and roll on it. From the reasons given when discussing the voice of the stag, we may reject the idea that the odour serves to bring the females from a distance to the males. Active and long-continued use cannot here have come into play, as in the case of the vocal organs. The odour emitted must be of considerable importance to the male, inasmuch as large and complex glands, furnished with muscles for everting the sack, and for closing or opening the orifice, have in some cases been developed. The development of these organs is intelligible through sexual selection, if the most odoriferous males are the most successful in winning the females, and in leaving offspring to inherit their gradually perfected glands and odours.


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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Odour.," The Descent of Man, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Descent of Man Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022,

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Odour." The Descent of Man, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Descent of Man, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Odour.' in The Descent of Man, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Descent of Man. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from