Diversity of compounds in femoral secretions of Galápagos iguanas (genera: Amblyrhynchus and Conolophus), and their potential role in sexual communication in lek-mating marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
Background Chemical signals are widely used in the animal kingdom, enabling communication in various social contexts, including mate selection and the establishment of dominance. Femoral glands, which produce and release waxy secretions into the environment, are organs of central importance in lizard chemical communication. The Galápagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) is a squamate reptile with a lek-mating system. Although the lekking behaviour of marine iguanas has been well-studied, their potential for sexual communication via chemical cues has not yet been investigated. Here we describe the diversity of the lipophilic fraction of males’ femoral gland secretions among 11 island populations of marine iguanas, and compare it with the composition of its sister species, the Galápagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus). We also conducted behavioural observations in marine iguana territorial males in order to explore the possible function of these substances in the context of male dominance in leks. Methods Femoral secretions were analysed by gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (GC–MS), and chromatography with a flame ionisation detector (GC-FID) in order to characterise the lipophilic composition. To understand the potential role of femoral secretions in marine iguana intraspecific communication, territorial males were sampled for their femoral glands and monitored to record their head bob rate—a territorial display behaviour in males—as well as the number of females present in their leks. Results We found that the gland secretions were composed of ten saturated and unsaturated carboxylic acids ranging in chain length between C16 and C24, as well as three sterols. Cholesterol was the main compound found. Intriguingly, land iguanas have a higher diversity of lipophilic compounds, with structural group of lipids (i.e. aldehydes) entirely absent in marine iguanas; overall the chemical signals of both species were strongly differentiated. Lipid profiles also differed among populations of marine iguanas from different islands, with some islands demonstrating a high diversity of lipophilic compounds (i.e. full spectra of compounds), and others lacking one or more compounds. Among the compounds most frequently found missing were 11- and 13-eicosenoic acids. Gland secretions of males with a better body condition and with a higher dominance status (i.e. those accompanied by females and with higher head bob display) were proportionately richer in C20-unsaturated fatty acids (11-eicosenoic acid). Discussion Land and marine iguanas strongly diverged in their chemical composition of the femoral glands likely due to ecological differences between both species. Despite that marine iguana populations varied in their femoral gland composition that was not related to their genetic structure. Our results indicated that 11-eicosenoic acid may play an important role in intraspecific chemical communication in marine iguanas.