PBS Nature: What Females Want and What Males Will Do
by Laura Tucker
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It’s spring out there, finally, and we know what that means… love is in the air, especially for the animal kingdom. In the two newest installments of PBS’s Nature series, we find that there’s quite a bit more to the the way animals court each other than we would have thought.
The first part of the series, airing April 6th, features gelada monkeys (closely related to the baboon family), sage grouses, and barn swallows. While the gelada females appear to be attracted to the depth of the pink and red skin patches on the chests of the males, the barn swallows are attracted by the brown feathers on the males chests. The male sage grouse, however, attracts females to him by producing a sound with the vocal sacs of his chest.
Nature follows scientists who have been studying these different species for quite some time. The scientist studying the geladas has now been included in their circle, after following them for nearly a decade, and is allowed to get close enough to check his theories. Another scientist conducts her own study of the barn swallows by painting the feathers of some males a darker brown, finding they become much more popular with the females. But perhaps the most scientific theory is tried out on the sage grouses, as a “fembot” is created, a robot resembling a female that is set out in front of the males to test them. They seemed to get along with her quite well, until she fell over on her track and couldn’t get back up on her own. It kind of sounds like a Bugs Bunny sketch.
The second part of the series, airing on April 13th, shows how different species of animals use methods of “cryptic choice” to find their mates. Many different animals are followed from insects to reptiles to even more birds. The most interesting were perhaps the stalk-eyed flies, as they proved to humans once and for all that size does matters. The females tend to gravitate more towards the male flies with the longer eye stalks.
Another interesting fact learned was about the cicadas. We know that sound they make is a way to attract mates, but I didn’t know they spend seventeen years underneath the surface before they emerge free as adults, ready to mate. As the parent of a boy who is almost 15, right now I’m thinking the cicadas probably have the whole raising teenagers thing down.
The capuchin monkey spends his early years learning how to do something called bashing that is similar to drumming. He learns how to find the tools and make the rhythms, and after four or five years of practice, he finally uses the technique to hopefully catch some girls’ ears. The palm cockatoos do a form of drumming as well, finding a hollow log, then stripping away branches until they find the best one to work with, beating on the log.
There is even a type of snake that has her own built in birth control system. As she comes out of hibernation, she’s still slow and cold, and there are already male snakes waiting to literally jump on her. They make a snake ball around her, and one lucky guy just happens to get the right positioning. Later on, when she begins to warm up, she’s quicker and can choose to mate with whoever she wants, as she can get away. In addition, she has the ability to only choose the sperm she wants to keep for her future children. She can reject the sperm if she decides she doesn’t want to bear her suitor’s children.
It’s that very idea, it seems, that keeps the animal kingdom going as well as it does. Through all these methods of choosing mates, only the stronger, more beautiful, more virile, more clever males are selected, meaning the gene pool is kept going strong, with the weaker of the genes being weeded out.
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