Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

I had written this story in 2014 for The Alternative, which has since packed up and no longer exists (or maybe lives in some strange parallel universe of the internet).

If Shakespeare ever needed inspiration for a new romantic novel and took to pottering about in the garden, it is not unlikely that he would come away with his mind brimming with new ideas. For in the garden, he would find Romeos with a string of belles, Juliets who are hard to please, jilted lovers and Casanovas, and connivers who find underhand ways of getting themselves noticed.

On the subject of wooing, there is no dearth of examples in nature. It is quite common for males to be the ones who woo females and for females to be the picky ones. During the breeding season, males of many species sport bright ornamental colours or engage in elaborate mating displays. I find it all quite hilarious. Still, the processes that control these behaviours are fascinating.

Courtship displays, ornaments and gifts presented to females evolved as a way for males to signal their quality to females and to score a mate. Sometimes, these traits or behaviours act in a way that is detrimental to their survival- for example the long tail of the male peacock is a hindrance while flying- but still stay on, for the sole reason that it makes the owner more attractive and increases their reproductive success.

The male Bengal bush lark dos a funny mating ritual where he flies up to a height of about ten metres and then float or swoops down. He does this repeatedly till his calculating female audience decides he is good enough for her.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

Mating display of a Bengal bush lark

It is usually the females that are selective because they have only a limited number of eggs on which they must expend a lot of energy. So by choosing the best male, she is guaranteed to have healthier offspring.

By being choosy and mating with select males, females stand to gain a helping hand in raising her offspring, protection from other attention-seeking males, and better nourishment. An example is a species of spider in which the male presents the female a gift of prey wrapped in silk prior to mating. The gift increases the chance of mating for the male and provides the female with better nutrition.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

In a few species of spiders, males court females by presenting them with a gift of prey wrapped in silk

Females also gain indirect benefits of mating with certain males- her offspring are healthier.

There are many interesting theories about what females look for in males before choosing them and why. Some say that males with traits of the highest quality are the fittest because there are costs involved in maintaining such traits. Traits like loud croaks or red bellies are sometimes reliable indicators of how healthy the owner of the trait is. In peacocks, females inspect the iridescent eye-spots of the male peacocks’ brilliant tail. The brighter they are, the more likely the owner of the spots is to be the chosen one. One study even went a little further to show that females only inspect eyespots on the lower parts of the tail.

Breeding season for many animals begins with the arrival of the monsoon. This period of time is when food and water is in abundance. Many male birds dress up, sometimes absurdly, for the breeding season. They grow long colourful feathers, and for some birds even the beaks change colour. The females, who in contrast look drab and dull, are then treated to an extravagant display as the males strut their stuff.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the natural world

A cattle egret before and after it sports its breeding plumage

In species where males have to vie for females in the game of mating, they also have to fight among themselves. Deer antlers and elephant tusks have evolved to aid in both winning over the females and competing amongst males. And when males are not healthy enough to win a female by just looks or flamboyant dances alone, they employ underhand tactics.

In tree crickets for example, it is the male’s size that makes females weak at the knees. Females are drawn to a group of males by their calls and then begin to scrutinize them. Males that are small and not fit enough to chirp loudly hang around casually next to a loud male. When the female arrives, the smaller male seizes the opportunity and quickly mates with the female before she or the bigger male has any say in the matter.

The Forest Spirit: Lessons in Wooing from the Natural World

Weaker tree crickets sometimes ‘cheat’ to bag a mate

I have introduced a few Romeos, Juliets and conniving knaves here, but there are a host of other characters in the mysterious world that is nature, more complex and astonishing than any Shakespearean novel. If you ever needed a lesson in wooing, you know where to look.

(This post was originally published in The Alternative)


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