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Doing it like animals

How to find love, as told by the wild kingdom.
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LOVEBUGS – Damselflies commonly assume this romantic “heart” position during mating. This contortion is necessary so the insects can transfer sperm while at the same time maintaining their ability to fly while linked together.

So it’s almost Valentine’s Day and you still don’t have a date.

Before you go cry in your beer, why not try some dating advice from the animal kingdom. Animals have been mating and dating for millions of years, and are full of tips on how to find true love – some of which might actually work.

Romance isn’t always easy to find in nature, which is replete with one-night stands, infidelity, violence and occasionally cannibalism.

But there are a few species that are so sappy you can practically see the little hearts floating around their heads. Take great horned owls, that are sitting on nests in Alberta right now and grooming each other, or damselflies, that will twist themselves into a heart-shaped position during mating, notes University of Alberta biologist John Acorn.

“I think it’s an entirely romantic position,” he said, adding many European damselflies also happen to be red.

For most species, it’s the male that needs to court the female, Acorn said. Researchers suspect this is because the female puts in the most resources when it comes to producing eggs and raising young, so she has to be picky. Two exceptions are the phalaropes and the spotted sandpiper – two polyandrous birds where the female woos the male and the male sits on the eggs.

Animals often only get one shot at reproduction and want to make sure they get the best mate possible, Acorn said. Since they can’t see genes, animals will use various tells and rituals as proxies for genetic quality.

How find a date

If you haven’t had luck on Tinder, animals have several suggestions on how to find a mate.

Some would say to use pheromones. Female red squirrels (which are mating in Alberta now) will emit a scent signal in the days leading up to the one day of the year they’re in heat to tell males that they can safely intrude on her territory, the University of Guelph reports. On the big day, the female will run through the forest to attract as many mates as she can – as many as 14 sometimes – and whichever males catch up to her get to mate.

Others would suggest music. When male robins come back to Alberta in the spring, they immediately claim and defend a territory, singing all the while, noted St. Albert birder Alan Hingston.

“He’s advertising the fact that I am a male robin, I’ve got a territory, I’m looking for a female.”

Wood frogs will likewise gather at their local watering hole and make their loud, duck-like calls to attract females, said Alberta Conservation Association biologist Kris Kendell. Once the females arrive, they’ll pair up with whomever they think has the best song.

Wood frogs also illustrate the importance of showing up early for your date, Kendell added – the ones that get to the pond first get to claim the warm, shallow spots that are best for egg development.

First impressions

Once you’ve found a potential lover, it’s time to turn on the charm and convince them of your fitness as a mate.

A bird would likely suggest showing off your fancy clothes. The red-winged blackbird will flash its vibrant shoulders, for example, while the blue-footed booby will do a slow strut with its blue feet. If you have a great-looking body, the theory goes, you’re presumably a healthy, fit mate.

You can also set up a sweet crib. Bowerbirds will craft a bower out of grass or sticks and decorate it with colourful rocks, fruit or bits of trash to try to impress a female, Hingston said.

“He’ll put it all together almost like an art show.”

Gifts also work. Black terns and many birds of prey will both give their prospective mates food to demonstrate their skills as a provider, Hingston said.

Butterflies would suggest you smell and look good, preferably under both visible and ultraviolet light, Acorn said. A mourning cloak will use its vibrant wing colours to catch the eyestalks of a female from a distance, then flutter around them, wafting pheromones up close. (Humans may be able to emulate this behaviour with perfumes and large fans.)

Many species will enact displays of physical prowess. The male ruddy duck will drum its blue beak against its chest to produce burbling bubbles in the water, for example, and make athletic dashes back and forth. Male hummingbirds will do loop-de-loops over their mates, while red-tail hawks will lock talons and spiral towards the ground, Acorn said – they usually remember to let go before they crash.

Black-capped chickadees will sing a specific two-note song to try to impress a lady, said U of A psychology Prof. Chris Sturdy, who studies the birds. The more consistent a bird’s song, the more fit it’s judged to be as a mate.

If you hear two chickadees singing at once, they’re having a singing contest, Sturdy said. If the female hears one male’s voice overpower the other, she’ll go and mate with the stronger singer. This demonstrates the importance of clear pronunciation and of not losing a shouting match with a rival, he joked.


Assuming your date is impressed by these antics, you’re now ready to mate.

“The deed itself can be extremely brief,” Acorn said, especially for most birds and mammals, but some insects will keep going at it for days. Some blister beetles will mate for so long that the male dies and the female keeps lugging his corpse around.

“It’s ridiculous,” Acorn said.

Some animals would advise taking steps to ensure your mate can’t couple with anyone else. Male wood frogs do this through amplexus, a practice where they glom onto a female’s back until she releases eggs for them to fertilize. Most develop big, swollen thumbs called “nuptial pads” so they can grip their slippery lovers around the chest for this purpose.

“I guess their swollen thumbs indicate a wedding is at hand,” he punned.

Kendell noted this practice can prove fatal to the female, as sometimes so many males will grab onto her that she drowns.

Lover beware

Dating carries risks, as most animals know.

“Oftentimes, mating is the most dangerous time in an insect’s life,” Acorn said – you’re intentionally drawing attention to yourself, and you might be too busy watching for mates to notice an oncoming predator.

Male western black widows have to carefully pluck on a female’s web to signal to her that they’re not food to even get close enough to mate, said Peter Heule, the live animals supervisor at the Royal Alberta Museum. If they succeed, they usually have to run for the hills afterwards in case the female is hungry.

You might also mate with the wrong species. Male Australian jewel beetles are famous for trying to have sex with certain beer bottles, the brown colour and bumpy texture of which just happen to resemble their preferred mates, Acorn noted. He also once saw 12 wood frogs trying to mate with a tiger salamander – he had to pry them off the presumably confused creature.

Most animals would say not to expect more than a one-night stand. With the exception of swan and geese, most animals don’t stick together beyond one season, Acorn said.

“Life is risky out there,” he explained, and the odds of both you and your mate surviving beyond a year are pretty poor.

Most dating advice from animals would probably get you arrested if you tried it with humans. But animals would probably consider human dating to be needlessly complex, Acorn said.

“Man, you humans are uptight about this,” he said, when asked what kind of relationship advice an animal would give.

“Just choose a good mate and get on with it!”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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