Wildlife Wednesday: Animal Romance

In honor of Valentine's Day, today's Wildlife Wednesday post is great article by Roger Di Silvestro and Ernest Thompson Seton entitled Valentines Day: A Holiday for Real Animals. Check out a sample here, and then make sure to click through to the National Wildlife Federation's full article for more fun!

Elk, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
from Wildlife Promise

Dressing Up

Going out on a Valentine’s Day date? Chances are you’ll dress up to look top-notch for the one you’re courting. Similarly, nature gussies up many of her species for courtship purposes.

Consider the antlers of buck deer or bull elk or the mating plumage of male songbirds, ducks and peafowl. All of these points are important to attracting a mate, plus they can scare off competitors. Like a pricey power suit, bright plumage, antlers, bright spots on a bird’s bill or a lizard’s throat, say to potential mates, “Look at me and be awed. I’m strong and healthy enough to put energy into growing these doodads. I’m powerful and skilled.”

More generally, species-specific colors and appendages—a robin’s red breast, or a male mountain gorilla’s silver back—say, “Make no mistake about it, I’m a member of such and such gender, and I’m a dazzling example of our species, so what’s not to like?”

Gorilla, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Individual members of many animal species learn from infancy that appearance is important. In fact, through a process called imprinting, individuals come to identify with the look of the creatures that raise them, which usually means their parents and ensures that they seek mates and companions from their own species. But you can take a newborn animal and mess with its head: Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz once raised a rook (a European member of the crow family) so that it became imprinted on him; as an adult the rook, interested in mating, tried to stuff worms into Lorenz’s ears as part of a (misdirected) courtship feeding ritual.

Rook, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Bearing Gifts

Valentine’s Day is a prime gift-giving holiday, part merchandizing ploy and part courtship. But giving gifts to prospective or actual mates is not uniquely human.

Bonobo (a.k.a. pygmy chimpanzee) males sometimes offer fruit to females with which they want to mate. Many male spiders present dead insects to prospective mates, in part to keep the indiscriminately predatory females from eating the suitors. In some spider species, males wrap an insect gift in silk webbing so the female will be preoccupied with unwrapping it, further enhancing the males’ odds of escaping the mating process alive. (The males of at least one spider species give females just a wad of empty silk—ladies beware).

Bonobo, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Some male birds are champion gift givers, offering complete nests to females. The bowerbird of Australia and New Guinea is a famed example, the male building elaborate nests decorated with small, often shiny objects that attract female attention. As with gaudy plumage, the nest tells females, “Hey, I’m a male in excellent physical condition, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to gather all these bits of bone, shell, fruit et cetera so I can offer you this delightful house with a rain-forest view.”

Bowerbird, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Among red-winged blackbirds, the males that lay claim to the best nesting sites get females first. In European storks, the legendary bearers of babies, the nest is a really potent gift. The birds mate for life, but their fidelity is to the nest, not the mate. Male and female return yearly to the same nest—not to each other—which has the effect of making them mates for life.

Red-Winged Blackbird, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
May I Have This Dance?

Birds, like this peacock, commonly use their feathers for challenging rivals and attracting mates... Dancing occurs in most human cultures. In some cases, men and women even perform separate, gender-specific dances they watch one another do, the perfect chance to get a measure of one another’s physical fitness. Birds are riding that bandwagon, too...

Peacock, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
(Wanna keep reading? Visit the National Wildlife Federation's website for the conclusion of this article: Valentine's Day: A Holiday for Real Animals)

Thanks so much for tuning in to my weekly Wildlife Wednesday series, and make sure to tune in next week for my answer to a nature-related "Ask a Zookeeper" question!

Hope you had a wonderful Valentine's Day, everyone!