Odd Mating Rituals of Animals
Valentine's Day can make February feel like it's all about love. Did you have a date? Did you give or receive the right gift? When you see the lengths some animals go to, it might make you feel even worse in comparison. Fortunately, though, there are also many of our fellow creatures that don't make it at all difficult to measure up.
Humans aren't the only animals that go dancing as a prelude to romance, but for some it really takes stamina: Scorpions dance hand in hand — well, pincer in pincer — for up to two hours. The dance usually ends abruptly, though, because if the male overstays his welcome, the female may eat him.
For the albatross, two hours isn't nearly enough. Their courtship involves a complex dance number made up of preening, calling, bill-clacking and other fancy moves, in a unique sequence that's developed over time with an individual partner. They mate for life, so they take their time to get it right: Some court for up to two years before pairing off.
Love songs are not unique to humans either. When you hear a chorus of frogs or crickets, you're listening to suitors trying to attract a mate. Crickets actually play their music on a built-in instrument: A scraper on one wing rubs a hard rib with a serrated edge on the other, and the membranes of the wings vibrate to amplify the sound.
Even the lowly fruit fly uses music in a careful ritual to woo a female. The male follows her around, waiting till she signals that she's interested. Then he'll tap her gently and extend his wings and vibrate them to play a courtship song. (He also knows that foreplay is important: Did you know fruit flies have tongues?)
And that annoying buzzing of mosquitoes in the summer? It may be the sound of a love song. When a male and a female come together, they adjust the frequency of their wingbeats so they harmonize.
If you really want to put on a show, though, the bird of paradise will tell you that you need a stage. The male starts out in costume: He's got plumes and frills, feathers arranged like a skirt or a cape, and depending on the species, his tail may look like an expandable fan, an arrangement of twisted wires. His elaborate dance may even include flaring his feathers to look like a tutu.
And such beauty and effort call for an appropriate theater: The male clears a space for his dance on the forest floor and covers it with a layer of fungus, adorned with colored leaves, bits of fur and snakeskin. He may even prune branches and leaves overhead to make sure his stage is properly lit.
But some birds think that what an impressive performance needs is a much bigger cast. Flamingos do their courtship display all together like a Broadway chorus line. They puff their feathers, whip out one or both wings, and stretch their necks and turn their heads in synchrony, all while strutting in unison.
https://youtube.com/watch?v=KW8GX2n4qbYAnd if you think looking for love is exhausting sometimes, be glad you're not a male pectoral sandpiper. He's so busy chasing off rivals and displaying for the ladies with his puffed-up chest that for the whole three-week breeding season, he has no time to sleep.
Beauty Is in the Eye — or Nose — of the Beholder
You might envy an animal with a mate that sings and dances with that much enthusiasm, but others have a much less appealing idea of what attracts the opposite sex. If you've ever had a date who overdid the perfume or cologne, it could have been worse: A male goat urinates on himself to attract the ladies. He does it in his mouth, too, like it's goat mouthwash.
Camels also scent themselves by urinating on their tail and wiping it over their back. They've got even more going on at the other end, though: In their mouth they've got an organ called the dulaa that they blow up with air. It looks like a red balloon hanging out of the camel's mouth, and with the help of his foamy saliva, it makes a low, gurgling mating call.
To be fair, it's not just the guys who use this method of attracting the opposite sex: Female porcupines attract males by scenting the air with their urine and mucus. The male, in return, gets the female in the mood with a forceful spray of urine that he can shoot from six feet away. It's probably a good thing he can start from a distance, since there's truth to the old joke that these prickly rodents have to mate very, very carefully: He's got to persuade her to move her quill-covered tail out of the way.
And for some animals, just the smell isn't enough. A male giraffe actually tastes the female's urine, and the vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth lets him detect the level of sex hormones, so he knows for sure whether she's in the mood.
Lying About Love
Pee as perfume may seem icky to us, but at least those animals are honest about what turns them on. Humans may be the only ones who can lie in an online dating profile, but there are plenty of animals that are less than truthful in their attempts to get a date.
When a male topi antelope thinks a female is losing interest and looks like she's about to wander away, he'll make the warning call that means he sees a lion. She will stick around for safety, which gives him more time to woo her. And a rooster will lure a distant female closer by making a call that means he's found food, when he's sure she's far enough away that she can't see it's really just a pebble or stick.
Even worse than lying about danger, though, is what the male water strider does: He threatens to attract predators as a way of blackmailing the female into mating with him. These insects walk on the surface of the water, and their motions attract hungry fish and other bugs. When a male mounts a female, he starts tapping on the water and only stops when she submits to his advances — after all, it's better than being eaten.
Some males are honest to their mates but deceive other males to get a chance at a date. The cuttlefish can alter the color and pattern of its skin and can control the patterns well enough to look totally different on opposite sides of the body. If a male approaches a female and there's another male nearby, he'll make the side of his body facing the rival look like a female, so he won't be chased away.
And some animals that seem to be putting a lot of effort into courtship are working hard to deceive. The bowerbird builds an amazing structure to attract a female, a tunnel with walls made of sticks, with a broad path leading to it lined with rocks, bones and shells. The objects on the path are carefully arranged so the largest are nearest the entrance, creating an illusion that the bower is larger than it actually is.
But at least all those liars are actually looking for love. Some female fireflies mimic the distinctive flash pattern of a different species, lure a hopeful male close — and then eat him. Even firefly scientists call these lying ladies "femme fatales."
Setting a Low Standard
While some of those strategies may seem unpleasant, at least those animals are making an effort. Some don't bother with courtship at all.
Deep-sea squid will attempt to impregnate anyone they run into, whether they're male or female. Their excuse: It's hard to tell who's who in the darkest depths of the ocean.
And echidnas will mate with hibernating females. She doesn't even wake up if it's practically an orgy: Researchers found up to four males with one sleeping female. Perhaps that's her version of "lie back and think of Australia."
But perhaps the worst is the funnel web spider. The male lures the female close with a courtship dance and then knocks her out with a sedative pheromone and takes advantage of her while she's out cold. To be fair, though, he has a pretty good reason: If she's awake, she'll probably eat him. At least that's one thing you probably don't have to worry about on Valentine's Day.