View from the Zoo: Studying elaborate courtship techniques

Asian short-clawed otters at Flamingo Land Resort.
Asian short-clawed otters at Flamingo Land Resort.
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On Valentine’s Day the zoo celebrated by looking at all the weird and wonderful behaviours animals have when it comes to courting and attracting a mate.

Just like humans, animals have ways of ‘wooing’ their partners and this can vary from elaborate courtship displays, to presenting their mate with a ‘gift’, to something much simpler like using scent.

Some animals are monogamous which means they have one partner for life. This includes our Asian short-clawed otters which live in an adult monogamous pair along with their offspring. This strategy is often chosen when the young depend on both parents to raise them. However, a lot of other animals have different partners each breeding season and some may mate with as many partners as possible. The advantage of this helps to maintain genetic diversity within a species.

Courtship displays can help animals pick their partner or reinforce bonds. Male ostriches have an intricate courtship dance to get the attention of females. They will crouch down, open their wings and start shaking them bringing them back and forth whilst swaying their neck from side to side. If a female is impressed she will allow him to mate with her.

Flamingos perform group ‘dances’ containing both males and females. Both sexes look out for a partner with the best moves. Once they have chosen they will pair off and stay with each other for the breeding season.

White storks will perform mutual courtship displays to reinforce their bonds. When reunited, a male white stork will initiate the display with the female joining in to cement their relationship.

Some species of penguins, such as the Gentoo and Adelie penguins, will offer a ‘gift’ to their partner. Males choose the perfect pebble to present to the female and if she accepts she will put the pebble in her nest.

Displays of bright colours are a key part in some animals courtship. Our Hamadryas baboons have excellent vision and females use the colour of their bottoms to attract a male. When they are ready to mate females rear ends will swell up and become redder in colour. The larger and brighter their swellings the more attractive they are to the males.

Many animals also use scent in their courtship as communication, informing a potential mate whether they are ready to breed. Luckily the human sense of smell is not acute enough to pick up these animal scents.