For most animals, wooing comes with heightened personal risk. A male's showy displays, while attracting a female's attention, could also attract nearby predators, and fights between male rivals can also result in a date night with a body count. In some cases, winning a cannibalistic female's affection places the male at the top of the post-coital menu.
Stabbing, captivity, pee drinking, and other strange dating rituals in animals
Among us humans initiating dating comes with emotional risks like rejection, humiliation and getting blocked in some cases. It also comes with efforts to woo and share memorable times together. This is a reality we share with animals but for animals, courtship can be a matter of life or death and pretty complicated.
Many of the courting behaviours practised by animals may seem strange, but as peculiar and risky as they are, they work just fine for their intended audiences. Here are a few examples of extreme courtship rituals in the animal kingdom.
1. Giant pandas
Pandas are notoriously difficult to mate in captivity. In the first-ever footage of giant pandas getting intimate in the wild, filmmakers in China recorded an older male and a younger rival courting the same female, who was high above the ground in a tree.
The males had a tense standoff until the younger panda retreated. But the female wasn't ready to mate; upon descending, the female fought the older male and escaped. The two males followed her for weeks, growling at each other until one suitor dropped off and the female was ready to mate with the younger fellow.
According to Science journalist Mindy Weisberger, it's possible that this prolonged male rivalry, including female "hostage"-taking, triggers female ovulation. So maybe that's why these black-and-white bears are so hard to breed in captivity, where male competition is nonexistent, according to the 2020 program "Pandas: Born to be Wild" that debuted the footage.
Male giraffes have to taste a lot of pee before they can mate. That's because the only way males (bulls) can tell if females (cows) are fertile is to determine if specific pheromones are present in her urine.
First, the bull nudges the cows and sniffs her genitalia. Sometimes it takes a few nudges, but then the cow will widen her stance and urinate into the bull's mouth.
Next, the bull curls back its upper lip and breathes in through its nostrils, using its sensitive vomeronasal organ above the roof of the mouth to smell his potential partner's pee.
Other also animals smell pee when mating, but usually the female pees on the ground for the male to sniff. In the giraffe's case, they're way too tall to do it that way.
On average, bulls have to approach 150 females before finding one who is ready to mate, a 2023 study published in the journal Animals found.
Land snails have a small appendage close to the eyestalk. That tiny structure is propelled into the snail's head by its mate, delivering an infusion of a special mucus that prepares the snail for receiving an envelope full of sperm.
As land snails are hermaphrodites, either snail in a mating pair is capable of fertilizing the other, and both are equipped with "love darts" that they use to stab their partner after they spend a bit of time circling around and touching each other with their muscular pseudopods.
Some snail species shoot single darts, some shoot multiple darts, and others use a single dart to repeatedly jab their mate for close to an hour, according to a 2006 study, published in the journal The American Naturalist.
4. Black Widow spider
Black widow females are about twice as large as males, so the smaller suitors have to be careful when approaching a female's web, to avoid being mistaken for prey and eaten before mating even starts.
Males stay safe by announcing their presence to the female with vigorous rump shaking.
As soon as a male steps onto a female's web, he vibrates his abdomen, sending signals coursing along the silk strands.
He advances, vibrates and pauses, advances, vibrates and pauses, a pattern distinctly different from the shorter, more irregular movements of trapped prey, researchers found in a study, published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.
The study authors also discovered that the vibrations that males produce are at a low amplitude, further distinguishing them from prey movements, which were more dynamic and percussive.
5. Sea slugs
Hermaphroditic sea slugs possess both male and female sex organs, and when pairs come together to mate, they stab each other between the eyes with a needle-like appendage called a penile stylet, delivering a cocktail of prostate fluid.
This tactic was described as "just weird" by a researcher who co-authored a 2013 study about the odd behaviour, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Scientists are uncertain as to why exactly the slugs target this body area for stabbing, but they suspect that the hormonal injection may serve to increase the possibility of successful fertilization.
Male mice seeking to impress a mate should avoid singing like the mate's relatives. They sing unique high-pitched songs, vocalizing in the ultrasonic range.
They produce these whistling sounds, which differ greatly from normal communication, by creating a type of feedback loop of airflow in the windpipe and larynx, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology.
Scientists discovered the mechanism by shooting high-speed video of the mice's larynxes as they vocalized, capturing 100,000 frames per second.
However, female mice are picky about which songs they like and they prefer tunes that differ from those sung by their relatives, according to an earlier study published in February 2014 in the journal PLOS One.
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