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Dating in the Animal World

(And we thought it was hard as a human)

Photos Above By Bill Ebbesen (public domain) Cover By Francis Franklin (public domain)

Article By Sammy

In honor of Valentine's day, we want to spread the love to those that may be celebrating the holiday with their pets, best friends, families, or not all, because, well, we know that finding a perfect match is hard work! Don’t believe us? Just take a look at all of the effort that goes into finding a mate in the animal kingdom!

Some of the most striking examples of mating rituals in the animal world are found among our feathered friends. Birds utilize elegant feather displays, choreographed dances, and elaborate songs to woo a mate of the opposite sex (typically it is the males trying to attract the females). These displays are a result of what is called “sexual selection” which is when a trait emerges as a result of preferential breeding with individuals displaying that trait. For example, everybody can visualize a male peacock with his beautifully colored tail that spreads around his body in a semi-circle shape. When you see this display, you may think to yourself “how does he survive in the wild? Doesn’t that huge tail weigh him down?” The answer is yes, it does weigh him down and it is a hindrance on his ability to fly and run… and the peahen (female) realizes this fact! During the male’s display she is looking at those tail feathers and inspecting them for any wear and tear. If the tail is pristine or has few blemishes, she knows that this male must be a good one -- he has avoided getting caught by predators even with that heavy tail; and his bright, unweathered feathers show that he is well-nourished and clean. Basically, he is showing her that he is extremely good at surviving and taking care of himself even though he has this added handicap.

Of course, the tail feathers of a peacock are only one example of inter-sexual selection (meaning males displaying to females). Birds are great specimens for identifying the various methods because there are tens of thousands of species and most of them have unique mating behaviors. Some have the ability to mimic virtually every sound they hear, and females will choose those with the largest repertoire of sounds -- likely because this ability highlights their immense brain capacity (a good trait for a mate). Many birds (most notably the birds of paradise) have elaborate mating rituals that involve complicated dances that require years of practice. Some species, like the bowerbirds create structural displays out of sticks and other organic matter that have to be refined for years before the female deems it acceptable (patience is a virtue). A lot of times, inter-sexual selection leads to sexual dimorphism, which is when the males and females of the same species are visually different from one another. So, while the males are developing these colorful or showy appearances, the females tend to be a drab color. Usually, this is because the female sits on the nest or cares for her young, and bright colors would draw too much attention to her and her offspring. There are many, many examples seen in birds and many documentaries that highlight all of these wonderful traits -- I highly recommend checking some out.

Also under the “sexual selection” umbrella is intra-sexual selection, which occurs when members of the same sex (typically males) compete for members of the other. This often results in armaments which are typically just seen on males of the species. For example, antelope and other Bovidae have horns which are used in male to male combat. The females will mate with the most dominant male, so in order to determine who that is, the males face off. Often, those with larger or stronger horns win and that trait is passed on through generations.

There are many factors that go into choosing the right mate but it all comes down to that animals ability to survive and thrive. Females will choose those males who have exceeded nature’s expectations and have endured the hardships of life even with added impairments. This is because she knows that if they are fit enough to survive then their genes will benefit her offspring. Or, males will compete as a way to prove who has the best genes and is the strongest/healthiest.

(Sexual selection has many complex ways of showing itself, and this is absolutely a generalized explanation that does not encompass a lot of awesome examples).

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