Finding and securing the perfect mate in the animal world brings out the best of the male population. Many go to great competitive and creative lengths to win over their future partner, but the females usually have the final say. After all, the fundamental bonds they will share as a couple will have a direct impact on whether their offspring will survive and thrive. Yet the question persists, can we call these bonds love? NATURE takes a provocative look at the love life of animals in Love in the Animal Kingdom.
The search for a mate takes many forms in the animal world. In the Arctic, normally solitary polar bear males sometimes spend weeks using their excellent sense of smell to track the scent of a female who will soon be ready to mate. Introductions take the form of sniffing each other closely, as the particulars of a bear’s age and health can be learned from its scent. In the next step their courtship, the two will begin to play, which allows the female to test his fitness by seeing if he can follow her up and down steep slopes. Since she’ll be raising the cubs alone, it’s crucial for the female to choose a mate in top condition who will give her strong and healthy offspring for her to rear. Once she decides he’s the one, she reels him in.
When it comes to mountain gorillas in Central Africa, it is a dominant male, the silverback, who offers the opposite sex not just good genes, but also protection for his extended families of females and youngsters. Besides his role as father, he also serves as babysitter, playmate and role model. It’s no wonder that when a young female gorilla sets her sights on the silverback, she uses all her feminine wiles to try and get his attention. She has to move quickly as she’s only got a day or two when she’s fertile. First, she tries the flirtatious act of smiling and gazing straight into his eyes. When that doesn’t work, she tries to make him jealous by carrying on with two immature males, which ultimately does the trick. The silverback charges in and the female gets her man.
For flamingos, the search for Mr. or Mrs. Right is all about choosing a dependable partner to help raise a family in extraordinarily tough conditions. Flamingos nest in the middle of muddy soda lakes where temperatures can soar above 120 degrees, so while one parent searches for food and fresh water, the other must be relied upon to protect the nest from the scorching sun. To find that reliable partner, thousands of flamingos gather on Tanzania’s Lake Bogoria to dance. It is perhaps the largest gathering of courting couples in the animal world. They’re looking for compatibility in age and size, and appearance – eye color and bright feathers are important. Coordinated dance movements single out the best dance partner, the best match. The couples will stay together until the end of their days.
On the Galapagos Islands, dancing is also the courtship method of choice for blue-footed boobies. Like flamingos, they seem to fall for birds most like themselves. They show off their big-blue feet as they dance because it’s an indicator of good health; the blue color is hard to make, especially if the birds are in poor condition. Once they find a partner and nesting starts, however, they continue their courtship displays while also conducting an open “marriage.” Boobies have a wandering eye, and about half have extra-marital affairs, though that doesn’t affect their commitment to each other or their family. The instinct to remain together is stronger than any infidelity as long as the male ensures they’re only raising his biological offspring. There are limits, even for the blue-footed boobies.
The mating game is as varied and intriguing as the animal kingdom itself and though we can never be sure what animals feel, it often looks like love and even the most scientific of observers can find it difficult to know what else to call it.