Steroids play vital roles in animal physiology across species, and the production of specific steroids is associated with particular internal biological functions. The internal functions of steroids are, in most cases, quite clear. However, an important feature of many steroids (their chemical stability) allows these molecules to play secondary, external roles as chemical messengers after their excretion via urine, feces, or other shed substances. The presence of steroids in animal excretions has long been appreciated, but their capacity to serve as chemosignals has not received as much attention. In theory, the blend of steroids excreted by an animal contains a readout of its own biological state. Initial mechanistic evidence for external steroid chemosensation arose from studies of many species of fish. In sea lampreys and ray-finned fishes, bile salts were identified as potent olfactory cues and later found to serve as pheromones. Recently, we and others have discovered that neurons in amphibian and mammalian olfactory systems are also highly sensitive to excreted glucocorticoids, sex steroids, and bile acids, and some of these molecules have been confirmed as mammalian pheromones. Steroid chemosensation in olfactory systems, unlike steroid detection in most tissues, is performed by plasma membrane receptors, but the details remain largely unclear. In this review, we present a broad view of steroid detection by vertebrate olfactory systems, focusing on recent research in fishes, amphibians, and mammals. We review confirmed and hypothesized mechanisms of steroid chemosensation in each group and discuss potential impacts on vertebrate social communication.
- Bile acid
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