But for years, gorilla researchers such as Dian Fossey anecdotally reported that each gorilla has a unique, and rather pungent, musky smell, Lee said.
So Lee and her co-author, Michelle Klailova, also a psychologist at the University of Stirling who studies primates, spent 12 months following a wild male silverback gorilla in the Central African Republic rainforest as the ape tended to his harem and fended off competitors. The gorilla, whom they named Makumba, was a dominant male whose babies had a high survival rate, Lee said.
During this time, the team used independent researchers to detect Makumba's scent.
Makumba broadcasted his scent when he encountered other gorillas, as if to say, "I am strong, powerful and here, protecting my females and babies," Lee told Live Science.
Other times, when strange and potentially threatening silverbacks were near, Makumba abruptly shut off his scent.
"We think he was then trying not to tell the other male where and who he was," Lee said.
The scent broadcasting wasn't nuanced enough to be a language, Lee noted. But Makumba's smell changed depending on the situation, such as whether the youngest baby was nearby or with its mother, whether his female harem mates were around and which stranger gorillas lurked about, Lee said.