The Maned Wolf and why its urine smells of cannabis

The maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), also known as the aguará guazú, which means 'big fox' in Guaraní, is the tallest canid in existence. Its name alludes to the long black hairs on the top of its neck, but it is also known as the 'wolf on stilts' because it has thin, endless legs (like socks and stockings) that help it to walk in pastures or flooded terrain and raise its head above the undergrowth in which it moves. Undoubtedly, the perfect result of millions of years of evolution to adapt to its environment, the extensive savannah of Brazil, although it is also found in the pampas of Peru and the scrublands of Paraguay and the northern part of Argentina.

It is a very enigmatic animal, solitary by nature (unlike other large canids, the maned wolf does not form packs) and a species rarely photographed in its environment and for which very little information exists. In fact, it is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, due to intense deforestation of its habitat, a vast territory once dominated by wild grasslands that are now cultivated with eucalyptus, pine, soya bean and sunflower plantations.

But even though it is one of nature's most extravagant creations - a dog that looks like a fox, walks like a deer and sounds like a wolf - it has a peculiarity that makes it even more unique: its urine smells like weed. And it smells a lot. Because the maned wolf is known for the distinctive smell of its territorial markings, which has earned it the nickname "skunk wolf", after the popular skunk family of cannabis genetics. Not being social canids, males and females are usually only together for a short period of time when mating, so they use their distinctive urine to mark their territory and to find (or keep away from) each other.

The urine smell of cannabis

There are many people who claim that certain strains of cannabis smell just like the urine of animals such as cats, but the resemblance in the smell of maned wolf urine is even more striking. This particularly strong stench of their urine could be an adaptation to maintain territories by being strong enough to be detected from a distance. So much so that in 2006 the police were called to Rotterdam Zoo to investigate complaints about a visitor smoking cannabis while watching the animals on display. Until they realised that the offensive odour actually originated from the toilet of a maned wolf.

A maned wolf in captivity, walking in the grass
A maned wolf in captivity, walking in the grass

Based on what is known about the organic compounds contained in the urine of cats and dogs, the cause of the maned wolf's odorous urine could be a sulphur-based compound. Cats, for example, have a sulphur-containing amino acid called felinin in their urine that is involved in olfactory communication, so it seems possible that maned wolves have something similar.

Pyrazines, an aromatic component of cannabis and wine

But this is not what PhD student Sara Childs-Sanford found when she submitted her 2005 thesis 'Maned wolf in captivity (Chrysocyon brachyurus): Nutritional considerations with an emphasis on cystinuria management', a paper that sought to improve the nutrition of captive maned wolves as a way to decrease the incidence of urinary tract stones. And instead of a sulphur-containing amino acid, the researcher found that maned wolf urine was unique among carnivores in having high levels of 2,5-dimethylpyrazine, an aromatic organic compound belonging to a group used in chemical and odour communication by many organisms and simply known as pyrazines.

Pyrazines are interesting because they often create strong odours that act as warnings. Insects adapted to display bright warning colouring also use pyrazines, as do plants such as milkweed (Asclepias spp.) that produce some compounds toxic to vertebrates. "The role of pyrazines for this purpose may correlate well with the maned wolf's normal social behaviour," suggested Sara Childs-Sanford, proposing that high levels of pyrazines in maned wolf urine act as a prominent and long-lasting sign to mark a particular territory. The peculiar weed-like odour of the canid's urine is an olfactory "Keep out!" to its competitors.

Pyrazines and tobacco

Another curiosity about pyrazines is that they are well-known substances within the food industry, as they are present in the flavourings used for prepared and roasted foods. Not just that, but they are also found in the wine industry, where pyrazines are the main compounds responsible for herbal aromas. In fact, the aromas and flavours of wine come from an almost magical combination of esters, aromatic terpenes, pyrazines, lactones and many other curiously named substances, as is the case with cannabis.

But above all pyrazines are used by the so-called (misleadingly) "light" tobacco industry, as they make tobacco softer, allowing a larger dose to be inhaled without causing much irritation. This is ideal for the tobacco companies' strategy to win over 18-24-year-old consumers by making tobacco less strong, but it also has chemical and sensory effects that act in synergy with nicotine and increase addiction.

E-cigarettes are as addictive as tobacco, thanks to pyrazine additives.
E-cigarettes are as addictive as tobacco, thanks to pyrazine additives.

However, according to some studies, pyrazine derivatives also appear to cause a dopamine rush in the brain independent of nicotine, which may partly explain why many smokers fail to quit with nicotine patches alone. "Pyrazines appear to make the product more attractive by making it easier to start smoking [...] more difficult to quit [...] and more likely that someone will relapse after quitting" states an analysis of old secret documents that in 2015 revealed how for years the tobacco industry researched pyrazines with a view to making "healthier" cigarettes (with less tar) but with the same taste, taking advantage of their addictive properties and finding the "Holy Grail" of cigarettes that seem healthier but are, in fact, more addictive.

Undoubtedly, this is further proof of the dark, obscure ways that the tobacco industry uses against the smoking population; and which is also used in electronic cigarettes (despite the fact that they supposedly only release water vapour and nicotine). All thanks to pyrazines, substances that serve as a warning in nature, but which the tobacco companies use without warning of their side-effects.

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References:

- The Captive Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus): Nutritional Considerations with Emphasis on Management of Cystinuria. Childs-Sanford, S. (2005) Tesis de Maestría: University of Maryland.
- Ecology and Social Organization of the Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology.
- A study of pyrazines in cigarettes and how additives might be used to enhance tobacco addiction. Hillel R Alpert, Israel T Agaku, Gregory N Connolly.

Main photo: Autor Jonathan Wilkins, licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0


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