Animals gone wild
In honor of Valentine's Day, we take a look at some of the more mesmerizing mating habits of wild animals. Slug orgies, anyone?
Tue, Feb 10 2009 at 5:38 AM
Ah, those amusing dating rituals. Will a sexy manicure attract a partner? Exotic perfume? Shiny new bling in a great house?
Those clever tricks aren't just for homo sapiens. The animal world is filled with creativity and lust in the love department. "When we go out and buy flowers, and chocolate, or a sappy card, it's really no different than a male bowerbird getting pretty objects for a nest to impress a female," says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.
"When guys get all testosterone-y ... it's the same as a bull elephant," he adds. "We're not as far removed from animals as we would like to think."
In some species, the dating formula is simple. The biggest, meanest male rules. Big as in male elephant seals, which can reach 16 feet and 6,000 pounds. The bulls fight with each other until there's one "winner," who mates with any female he wants. Deer, monkeys and baboons follow similar patterns.
Other creatures are more subtle, and less sexist. "As a general rule, females have a lot more choice," says Mizejewski. "Males have to do these ritual displays, and the female gets to pick," he said.
Girls rule among painted turtles. The boys have long front claws. To show off to a female they fancy, the guy turtle will swim around and wave his claw in her face. If she’s ready to mate, it’s a date. But if she’s not moved by his manicure, she simply swims away. Mizejewski said it’s sort of like what a teenaged girl might do to a nerdy guy, communicating in no uncertain terms, "Get away from me, you annoying thing!"
And take those bowerbirds. Males are skilled carpenters and interior decorators. They could star in their pick of Do-It-Yourself cable shows. The male builds a stick structure known as a bower. Then he gathers some bling — shells, feathers, flowers, even human castoffs like string or plastic. Then, like a buyer scouting out a subdivision, the female gets to say, "I'll take that one!"
And pity the hard-working house wren. Males travel north in the spring, weeks before females, to stake out territory and build as many nests as possible. The idea, explains Mizejewski, is to show the female "I can build the most nests, I'm the best provider, mate with me." However, once he gets the girl, she usually rips apart the bachelor pad, and builds it from scratch, her way.
Whether it's brains or brawn, mating is based on survival of the fittest. Individuals that can pass on the best genes for strength, speed, and ingenuity have the best chances of having healthy offspring. Sea slugs may have heard that Woody Allen quote about bisexuality: "It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night."
"Some animals can be both sexes at once so they are never lonely on Valentine’s Day," says Mizejewski. "They have orgies, these big masses of slugs," he said. It’s not a promiscuity thing, just a good survival strategy.
Australian cuttlefish can’t actually change their sex. But males took a page from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot": Sometimes dressing in drag can get you passed the bad guys. A male can change his shape and color to mimic a female. These gelatinous animals, similar to squid and octopi, can be phosphorescent, they can have zig zags -- long enough to swim past the dominant male. Once in safe territory, he switches colors so the females know he’s really a guy. So let the cuttlefish cuddling begin.
"Most females are more than happy to mate with a male that is more clever than strong," says Mizejewski.
And guys, if you think it’s a chore buying flowers and watching a chick flick on Valentine's Day, it could be worse. You could be a moth. Female moths exude an odor, a pheromone irresistible to males. Bola spiders have learned to mimic that smell. When an enamored male moth shows up, the crafty female spider ... eats him.
Also on MNN: All the Valentine's Day coverage an eco-geek could ever want.