Photograph by Richard Du Toit, Minden Pictures/Corbis
Read Caption

Giraffes court in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. If a female likes a male, she'll urinate.

Photograph by Richard Du Toit, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink: How Do Animals Flirt?

Just as with people, gifts, perfumes, and displays of affection win wild hearts.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we couldn’t resist Iris Mimih’s question: “Do animals wink at their amours to show interest?”

The answer is mostly no, but for Saturday’s Weird Animal Question of the Week, we investigated the various ways that animals signal interest in one another. (See: “Animal Valentines: 5 of Nature’s Best Flirters.”)

Pheasant Dance

Birds are the most well-known flirters, and among them, peacocks, bowerbirds, and birds of paradise usually steal the show.

Until, that is, you see the male great argus, a type of pheasant that puts on possibly the most impressive display. The great argus flashes long, eyespotted feathers in a dazzling dance to woo females. (We fell in love with it, too, so the flirting must work on humans).

Sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers these pheasants near-threatened in their native habitat of the Malay peninsula.

Bottlenose Bros

Male bottlenose dolphins also turn up the charm by forming “cooperative alliances,” Quincy Gibson, a biologist at the University of North Florida, says via email.  

The male dolphins will swim and break the surface in a “highly synchronous” way, even leaping around, in what may be an effort to impress the ladies. (See “Valentines Science: Why Gauging Sexiness Is Sophisticated.”)

If not they have other tricks up their, um, blowholes. 

Dolphins: Even Smarter Than You Thought

From learning English symbols to teaming up to trick their prey, dolphin intelligence continues to surprise researchers

“Dolphins are very tactile animals, and males and females will pet and rub their close associates frequently using their pectoral fins and other body parts as a way to bond and/or show affection,” Gibson says.

A Tall Drink of… Urine

Now that we have some dancing, how about some perfume?

Male giraffes will explore a female’s rump and genital area, and if she likes him (wink!) she’ll voluntarily produce urine which he’ll sniff and taste, to see if she’s in estrus. 

“Males cannot afford to waste time and energy trying to court a female who is already pregnant or not yet in estrus,” Rachel Brand, an independent behavioral ecologist in Namibia, says via email. She added that many animals do the same. (See “Wild Romance: Animal Courtship and Mating Rituals.”)

Mating can be “a pretty precarious business,” Brand adds.

"A male has to rise quite high on his hind legs and raise his forelegs a long way off the ground," she says. If he makes an attempt to climb on top of her and she walks away, “he could be in for quite a fall!” 

So he’ll keep checking if she’s interested by “pressing lightly on her rump with his chest.”

But she may also be stalling until a better suitor arrives.

Wooed With Food

Insects do the best gift baskets, says Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona.

Males often bring females presents of dead prey, “the insect equivalent of a box of chocolates.” (See “Female Peacock Spiders Underwhelmed by Disco Dancing Suitors.”)

Male scorpion flies may risk their lives swiping a dead insect from a spider’s web to offer a female as a nuptial gift. Or he may offer a blob of his own protein-packed spit, a nice nutritional supplement to help his sweetheart produce eggs.

Thank goodness we’re not scorpion flies.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.