Playing the Field of Love

Elephant seals. Photo by David Cook via Flickr Creative Commons

Elephant seals. Photo by David Cook via Flickr Creative Commons

With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, it’s nice to step back and appreciate the love that’s going on around us. Humans are not the only beings capable of forming relationships. Wildlife also look for partners, whether it’s a mate for life or just for a fling.

In environments where resources are unevenly distributed, competition for mates may become intense. Wildlife sometimes prefer a polygamist relationship with two or more lovers. No, it’s not because they’re party animals, it’s driven by supply and demand.

Check out some of the different types of polygamy and the wildlife that exhibit these behaviors:

(Also be forewarned, these species have evolved to be pretty scandalous.)

Polygyny

Polygyny is an adaptive type of polygamy where one male mates with several females in one breeding season.

Lyrebird

If you want to get the attention of a potential mate, then try doing what the lyrebird does and mimic chainsaws, camera shutters, and other birds. Lyrebirds, native to Australia, have a dispersed polygynous, “lek” mating system where males congregate in a cluster of small territories, collectively called a lek, and perform elaborate visual and vocal displays to persuade females to mate. Lyrebird males mate with any females that they can attract, and as many as they can in the same breeding season. They do not form pair-bonds and emancipate themselves from parental care.

YouTube Preview ImageVideo from BBC

During sexual displays, the male Lyrebird coordinates each song with an intricate dance to woo the ladies. His acoustic repertoire includes sounds from his environment: kookaburras, dingoes, car alarms, ringing phones, crying babies, rifle-shots, and even laser guns. He can also imitate over 20 different species of birds. When the breeding season hits-between June and August, it is not uncommon for the male to spend six hours a day performing his concerto. His sound is so perfect that he is often mistaken for the real thing.

Elephant Seal

The elephant seal takes a contrasting and more violent approach to polygyny called female-defense polygyny. This is where females form groups (called harems) and are controlled by a single alpha male. Elephant seal harems can contain up to 100 females.

These three-ton mammals have a reproductive strategy focused solely on inseminating as many females in their harem as possible while doing nothing to help rear their offspring. Males often battle each other for mating dominance. These aggressive battles are often blood baths and sometimes even end in death.

YouTube Preview ImageVideo from Richard Sidey 

Polyandry

One of the rarest and most unusual domestic arrangements in the animal kingdom is called polyandry. In this mating system, one female mates with and controls the breeding activity of several males. Typically, but not always it involves sex-role reversal.

Dunnok

Dunnok

Dunnok. Photo by Francesco Veronesi via Flickr Creative Commons

Native to the UK, the dunnock exhibits cooperative polyandry where multiple males assist a female in one nest. Females breed with two or more males at once, which is quite rare among birds.

Although pair-bonding between the alpha male and female dunnock are secure, females will concurrently court a second male. This is a form of trickery to guarantee paternal care to her offspring.

When the dunnock’s alpha suitor is foraging, the female will sneak into the bush and copulate with the beta male. Once finished, she displays her rump for her alpha. He expels the sperm of the beta male by pecking at her genital opening and then mates with her himself. Dunnocks take just one-tenth of a second to fornicate and can mate more than 100 times a day.

Though polyandrous mating is the most common in the dunnock, it has also been observed exhibiting monogamous, polygynous, and polygynadrous mating systems.

See an amazing video of the female Dunnok courting two suitors from BBC.

Polygynandry

Polygynandry involves having an exclusive relationship with more than one partner. This is commonly associated with multi-male, multi-female group compositions.

Ring Tailed Lemur

Endemic to Madagascar, the ring-tailed lemur displays a third type of polygamy called polygynandry.

In these female-dominant colonies, the sense of smell (olfaction) plays a crucial role in group communication. In displays of aggression, males will engage in a social display called “stink fighting” where they rub their tales with scent glands located on their wrists, and then flick their tales at one another. These “stink fights” can last from 10 minutes to one hour. The males also waive this perfume at females in hopes of seducing a mate.

YouTube Preview ImageVideo from BBC

Promiscuity

Promiscuity is similar to a polygynadrous mating system except that there are no pair bonds formed among specific individuals.

Sea Hare

In the sea hare community, there is certainly no discrimination. Sea hares are a hermaphroditic species (containing both female and male sex organs). When it is time to mate, they release a pheromone called attractin that is 1000x more potent than human pheromones. They create copulation chains, alternating between genders. If the group reaches 15-20 sea hares, this performance will last for days. Check out this video of these mating chains:

YouTube Preview ImageVideo from NatGeo Wild

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