You think dating is hard? Try being one of these animals.
From spraying mates with urine to changing one's sex, these are the most intriguing courtships in the animal kingdom.
If there’s one universal need in the animal kingdom, it’s the burning desire to reproduce. But most species need a bit of extra magic to get the job done.
Some males rely on elaborate dancing to attract their mate, or, in the case of the capuchin monkey, cover themselves with attractive urine. Others offer tantalizing “nuptial gifts” to females, such as male great gray shrikes, which proffer females a freshly caught “mouse kabob” on a stick. (Read about moonwalking birds and other unique mating rituals.)
“It’s not all roses and chocolates,” says Jennifer Verdolin, an associate professor of ecology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Everything is adapted to their environment, their life history, their particular challenges and opportunities they can exploit.”
Here are some of the most intriguing examples of courtship in the wild.
Patience for the prickly
The female North American porcupine is in estrus—the period when a female can accept a mate—for about eight to 12 hours a year, says Uldis Roze, professor emeritus of biology at City University of New York and author of the book The North American Porcupine.
To announce this fleeting window of opportunity to any roaming male porcupines, the composition of her urine changes to become more attractive to potential mates. Male porcupines arrive, ready to battle each other with their quill-covered tails. The winner then climbs up the female’s tree and waits.
Just because she signaled estrus is approaching, it doesn’t mean she’s ready to mate. So the victorious male does what he can: He hits her with a powerful stream of urine, Roze says, which may contain a chemical trigger molecule to hurry her along.
A few hours later, the pair climbs to the ground and mates. He leaves a vaginal plug inside of her to prevent another male from mating—and keep his sperm from falling out—and off he waddles.
A gift with strings attached
Male nursery web spiders, common throughout the world, attempt reproduction at their own peril, and females are not easily wooed.
Males must first bring females a nuptial gift, usually dead insect wrapped in silk. Females in one species, Pisaura mirabilis, will not mate without one.
In other species, males cling to their gift of food while playing dead, waiting until the female is distracted enough by the food to come back to life and mate with her.
And sometimes, males achieve their goal by deceiving the female with worthless gifts, such as an exoskeleton. There’s a cost to such a strategy, as females will terminate mating more quickly, leading to less sperm transfer. And in the most extreme cases, she may just eat him.
Colors require a lot of energy to maintain in the animal world. For the three dozen or so species known as birds of paradise, flamboyant feathers and even more flamboyant dancing signal a healthy mate that’s likely adept at finding food, says Verdolin, author of What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships.
“It’s essentially advertising to the female saying, ‘I’m awesome. You want to mate with me,’” she says. (Learn more about the flashy birds of paradise.)
Male birds of paradise, native to New Guinea and surrounding islands, also tidy up their dancing stage, making sure it’s flat and free of debris to create a setting for the best hours-long performance possible.
And his disease-free virility is important, because after mating, the show-stopping male bird of paradise flies the coup. He doesn’t help build nests, incubate eggs, or feed chicks.
‘Sea of moving spaghetti’
Nestled in underground dens during frigid Manitoba winters are tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes waiting for warmth. In the spring, males emerge first, warmed up and ready to mate. As females slither to the surface, covered in sex pheromones, males descend on her a hundred at a time.
“Mesh your fingers in front of your eyes, and that’s what a female sees,” says Robert Mason, an Oregon State University professor of integrative biology. “It’s a sea of moving spaghetti.” (Go inside the world’s largest gathering of snakes.)
But the groggy female’s cloaca—an all-purpose opening used for mating—is shut, and the male snakes rubbing their chins up and down her skin must wait. Eventually it opens a touch, likely from stress, and then the closest male deposits semen and a plug to prevent further mating.
Some females, which are often bigger, will wait for the plug to dissolve before mating again, this time with a male of their choice. This could be a way for the female to ensure her eggs are fertilized by the biggest and fittest mates.
A sexual sacrifice
Not only can banana slugs be male or female, they often are male and female during mating, depending on the species. Banana slugs, of the Pacific Northwest, first announce their availability by releasing pheromones in their slime, which are then detected by other banana slugs.
Upon meeting, banana slugs first spend up to an hour biting and batting each other with their heads, says Janet Leonard, a research associate with the University of California’s Institute of Marine Sciences.
In some species, both slugs will then insert their respective penises in the other at the same time for simultaneous fertilization. Other species will take turns, trading the role of male or female every 20 or so minutes. In rare instances, one or both penises will become stuck, and either slug may chew it off. Missing a penis isn’t fatal, but it also won’t grow back.
So although human dating can be quite a challenge, at least be glad you’re not a banana slug.