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Be my Valentine: animal kingdom style

Ah, Valentine’s Day. A whole day of the year dedicated to love. Most of the humans I have encountered have some strong opinions about Valentine’s Day. Some enjoy the idea of buying expensive gifts or dressing up and going out to celebrate with a fancy meal, maybe throw in a little karaoke and dancing too! Others just see it as another day on the calendar and don’t feel the need to celebrate. I use it as an excuse to decorate my house, buy candy, have a nice at-home meal with friends, and buy my dog more toys! No matter how you do or do not celebrate the day, you must admit, dating rituals are weird. And even weirder when you realize a lot of what we do as humans, animals do too! If you are thinking to yourself, “oh no. I think I know where this is going,” I am smiling knowing that you will learn some interesting dating habits of animals, and yes, comparing them to our own!

Think about it. If you do have plans for Valentine’s Day, are you picking out a “fancier” outfit for dinner? Instead of your usual comfort, at-home attire, maybe you’re reaching for a dress or suit? Maybe you style your hair and adorn yourself with makeup or jewelry. Maybe you even did a quick workout to pump yourself up physically and mentally. Guess what humans? Animals do this stuff too! If I listed out all the species of animals that have specific grooming habits to attract mates, this Keeper Stories blog would be unending. Birds will preen their feathers so they lay just right when trying to impress a mate. Social animals like rodents, primates, and canines will participate in allogrooming, where members of the same social group will groom one another, which is a great way to strengthen their bonds. Lizards like bearded dragons and chuckwallas will do “push-ups” to attract mates. It looks just like the ones humans do! Males will even have push-up contests against one another, all to impress the females!

Appearance is great; now you take it one step further with smell, another important dating ritual! Most humans wear deodorants and use scented soaps or lotions on a near daily basis to help us smell not so smelly. But to impress a mate, do you find yourself reaching for a bottle of cologne or perfume to give yourself that extra boost of scent-y goodness? Animals like tenrecs participate in this sensory behavior too! Although their scent booster is already built in. Tenrecs (pictured) communicate largely through scent, so male tenrecs will secrete a white, milky substance from their eyes and nose to let a female know he is interested. The male will anoint his territory with this substance, to let passing females know he is interested. This milky substance produces a pungent smell that only a tenrec can love!

You are dressed and smell good, so what’s next? Oh, my favorite, presents! I’m not just talking about human presents, but the animal comparison as well! Fair warning, this might be your least favorite part of the animal dating game. What’s nice about being a human is the gift giving part of Valentine’s Day; this part is optional! Is it a nice gesture to get your date-mate chocolates, flowers, jewelry, etc.? Sure! I don’t want to deter anyone from gift giving, but as humans it is optional. It is not optional if you are a spider. You want to impress a female in the spider dating world, so you better not show up empty handed. Why not? She’ll eat you if you don’t bring a gift. The next male does bring her a gift. A fly you worked hard to catch and wrapped so nicely in a web, but oh no! She doesn’t like flies. Sorry, she’s going to eat you too. Okay, the next male brings a cricket wrapped in web. She does like crickets! Wait. You only brought her one cricket? Still not good enough, she eats you too. The next male brings her a bouquet of crickets. Hooray for him, he has won her heart (which is in her abdomen pumping blue blood)! Seriously when it comes to spider world females are extremely picky about the gifts males will bring. Mate predation in spiders is high, most likely since females are larger than the males. The infamous black widow females are two to three times larger than males. Not to scare you, but that would be the equivalent of a 6-foot-tall human taking a partner on a date that is the size and has the appetite and voracity of a bipedal polar bear. Fun right?! Breathe easy knowing gift giving is an optional ritual for humans.

Congratulations, you have successfully made it to dinner! There are a wide range of feeding strategies we can participate in as humans. Are you and your date more of the share all your food and beverages type or more of the nope not sharing a thing type? Either way provides a lot of insight into the ritual of dining out. You and your mate have gotten so comfortable in your rituals that sharing food is the best way to keep you both happy! Or maybe you share your food to impress your mate. As a toucan, food sharing is the way to go! Male toucans will forage for fruits or insects to bring to females to impress. If the female reciprocates the shared food item, like passing it back and forth, success! However, if the female drops the food on the ground or eats what has been given, that is the toucan’s way of saying “no thank you.” But as humans, if you are sharing food, it is generally considered positive if they eat the food offered. I also don’t think you should be too discouraged if your date drops food either! They might just be messy. And if you’re not being messy, are you really enjoying your food?

As you and your date are finishing your shared dessert, you both have the genius idea to participate in one more dating ritual before calling it a night: song and dance! Think you’ve got what it takes to serenade your partner during karaoke, or are you more proficient tearing it up on the dance floor? If you think you can crush it either way, you guessed it, so many animals participate in the song and dance ritual too! And some animals may be superior at it compared to most humans. The vocal cords of most birds are unlike any other in the animal kingdom. Called a syrinx, this structure sits lower, right above the lungs. It is the most efficient and complex vocal structure in most birds. The syrinx allows birds to breathe and create sound at the same time, which humans cannot do. The cardinal’s syrinx works so they can create two different sounds at the same time. This ability to create songs is one of the best ways for birds to attract a mate. Songbirds are called songbirds for a reason! Even with an advanced “voice box” like this, some birds opt for an elaborate dance to impress mates, some even clear their own dance floor to really put on a show. But you’re a human, so ideally you should be able to sing AND dance at the same time, right? Perfect! So can some species of jumping spiders. Jumping spiders will dance to impress a female and scientists found that each male has his own individual dance he will perform for a female. Some can take it one step further and “sing”.  Males are able to move their eight legs so quickly to create a sound the female can hear through ear like slits on her legs. And just like their dances, each song is unique too! Remember earlier that if male spiders don’t bring impressive enough gifts to woo a female, she’ll eat him? Yeah, same here.

See animal’s dating rituals are not too dissimilar from our own! As humans we have learned how to turn these rituals into successful strategies for attracting our own mates. And remember, whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day or not, you can at least sleep easy knowing you are not a spider.

Emily B.
Keeper III, Ambassador Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl