Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Education/Wild Encounters
The bright plumage of a peacock is so unmistakable that we use it as a metaphor for showing off to prospective romantic partners. When a male peacock unfurls its brilliant tail feathers, you can’t help but stop and stare. When you walk through the Zoo, you’ll almost certainly encounter one of our male peacocks, crooning his relationship status or proudly displaying his colorful fan. He might even try to distract you from other, less colorful animals, by inserting himself between you and them! (If you’d like to learn the cool way that the structure of the peacock’s feathers produces the glorious colors, check out these findings from 2003.)
It’s spring, which means mating season for many animals, so it’s a great time to notice how animals preen, prance or patter in hopes of propagating their species.
We talked about mating signals during a recent Zoo Troop session for 6th through 8th graders called “Be Mine.” The students observed birds, fish, and other creatures, learning about physical traits, actions, sounds, and scents that animals use to say, “Relationship Status: Available.”
We giggled a bit at the similarities between the human animal and some of the others out there. Humans choose clothing, hairstyles, perfumes, and workouts often with the goal of attracting a mate. Is a rock star strutting and belting a song so different from a male bird calling to passing females? Are our fashion choices so different from scales or plumage? We even studied the bower bird, which spends weeks building an elaborate “bachelor pad” complete with bling that he painstakingly gathers from his environment. Do you know anyone like that? There’s no doubt, we have a lot in common with wild animals.
An animal’s tools of attraction indicate that animal’s fitness, meaning the quality of its genetic material. Picking a mate who is strong, capable, and beautiful tends to mean their offspring will be the same. A lion with a lush mane is better protected during battles with rivals. A brighter pink flamingo has chowed on more shrimp. Some animals, from spiders to penguins, bring each other gifts, which may demonstrate the hunting prowess needed to feed young.
Lucky for humans, we’re able to see beneath the surface. What if you could only choose a partner based on outward signs or on what might be considered an ideal physical appearance? That would limit your choices considerably, and think of all that you might miss out on. We get to consider a person’s values and personality, likes and dislikes. We also have differing ideas about what is attractive. You might think someone is adorable who your friend finds positively plain.
As you explore the Zoo this spring, notice the mating rituals going on among the animals — even the human ones. Take a minute to consider how we’re alike and different from our fellow residents of planet Earth. And keep an eye out for the results of all this mating… Zoo babies!