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Abstract

Flehmen, a conspicuous posture characterized by eversion of the upper lip, facilitates the transfer of nonvolatile urinary chemicals to the vomeronasal organ and therefore has been implicated in the control of reproduction in ungulates. The ontogeny of urine sampling and flehmen was investigated in semi-free-ranging sable antelope, Hippotragus niger, at the National Zoological Park's Conservation and Research Center because behavioural evidence suggests that flehmen is a mechanism of reproductive synchronization among females. During the first year of life, flehmen rates increased with age in both sexes. Flehmen rates of female calves equalled those of adult females by 4 months of age. Male calves first exhibited flehmen at younger ages than did female calves and showed greater increases in flehmen rate during development. Both sexes exhibited flehmen primarily after sampling urine of female conspecifics as it was being voided. During the first 2 months of life, sable antelope preferred to sample urine of other calves, but by 1 year of age adult females were the preferred targets. Females approaching sexual maturity preferred to sample urine from postpartum females (presumably resuming oestrous cycling) rather than from pregnant females, as expected if they were attempting to synchronize oestrus with experienced females. Results are consistent with the hypothesis that flehmen serves to coordinate reproduction among females and further suggest that flehmen may affect reproductive maturation.