In the animal kingdom, courtship between individuals can be just as elaborate as human courtship, if not more so. While humans show their affection by sending flowers or taking their loved one out on a date, animals have their own unique methods for winning over that special someone.
Courtship is an essential behavior displayed by animals—primarily males—that encourages the selection of a strong, healthy and fertile mate to breed with. This concept of sexual selection states that certain evolutionary adaptations, such as the elaborate coloring of a male peacock’s feathers, are explicitly designed to outcompete others for mates. In the end, this process helps species evolve into a stronger, healthier, and more successful generation, which is essential for the survival of species in this constantly changing world.
Depending on the type of animal, each species has its own distinct technique for attracting a mate. While some methods may be as simple as a bird’s plumage, others may be more complex, such as a series of dances, nest construction, or a display of strength.
No matter which method is used between species, animal courtship is one of the most fascinating processes of the ecological world.
The Gentoo penguin might have one of the most adorable courtship rituals in all of the animal kingdom.
When ready to mate, a male Gentoo penguin will scour the entire rocky shoreline in search of the most beautiful, smooth, and shiny rock to present as a gift to a female.
If the male cannot find the perfect rock on his own, he may steal a pebble from a neighbor’s nest, which can cause some ruffled feathers between other males of its kind.
Female Gentoo penguins make their nests out of stones to keep their eggs above the surface in case of flooding. So, the male must find the perfect pebble to show that he is ready to start a family, whether he steals it, fights over it, or finds it himself.
If the female is receptive to the pebble, she will place it in her nest, and the pair will engage in a ritual where they bow, shake and call out to each other. This ritual allows the couple to get accustomed to each other’s vocalizations so they can easily find each other in the wilderness.
Following this process, the female will invite the male to help her finish constructing her nest in preparation for the eggs.
Although this act has been observed as a romantic gesture between Gentoo penguins for years, a study revealed that females do not rely on the ‘perfect’ pebble when choosing a mate. They don’t even necessarily depend on pebble presentation at all when selecting a mate. Still, males have a much better chance at mating if they do gift a pebble.
While pebbles are more of a practical gift than a romantic present, pebble presentation between Gentoo penguins is still a significant part of their courtship rituals.
Sea horses have their own unique courtship displays involving coordinated dancing, color-changing, and eventually, the male producing thousands of babies.
At the beginning of their mating ritual, male and female seahorses will come together every morning for several days and dance together, mirroring each other’s moves. During this time, they will also change colors as they move together and may swim side by side, holding each other’s tails. Not only is this dance intended to reinforce their bond, but it is also said to help them assess each other’s reproductive state.
This ritual ultimately leads to what is called a ‘true courtship dance,’ during which a male will expand his egg pouch to reveal its emptiness. When ready, the female will transfer her eggs into the male’s pouch, and the male will fertilize the eggs with his sperm, resulting in dozens to thousands of babies.
In 1995, divers discovered mysterious circles on the ocean floor in Japan and were marveled at their intricate designs and patterns. Scientists later found that these circles were not just random—they were actually created by a species of pufferfish to attract a mate.
When ready to mate, the male pufferfish will flap his fins along the ocean floor to disrupt the sand and create a stunning circular pattern with radially aligned ridges and valleys on the outside.
The male will then gather items to decorate these ridges, including pieces of shells and fine sediments, which give these formations their unique appearance.
Once finished, a female will come to inspect the formation to decide whether or not she wishes to reproduce with the male. If she likes what she sees, she will deposit her eggs into the fine sediments in the center of the circle, which the male will then fertilize externally.
(photo: Joseph C Boone, wikimedia)
Male bowerbirds will spend many months constructing and decorating the perfect structure to attract a mate.
These structures, called bowers, are constructed using twigs and other objects the male can find, such as stones, flowers, or garbage.
When finished building the structure, the male will gather brightly-colored materials to decorate the outside. Pebbles, snail shells, flowers, berries, ferns, spider webs, dead beetles, bones, aluminum foil, and more are used by the male to increase his chances of companionship.
Females will visit multiple bowers when searching for a mate, inspecting the quality of each structure and judging the male’s courtship displays to decide who she will reproduce with.
Male peacock spiders use their stunning colors and unique movements to win over a female.
When ready to mate, the male peacock spider will perform a series of dances when he has spotted a female.
If the female is interested, the male will unfold his brightly colored abdominal flap and strut back and forth while waving his colorful legs. He will also vibrate his abdomen and dance from side to side when approaching a female.
Male peacock spiders have to be careful during this process, though. If a female is not interested, and the male continues his courtship ritual, she may attempt to attack or kill him. It seems as though unrequited love is apparent in the animal kingdom too.
Male birds-of-paradise have elaborate plumage patterns that are used to attract females.
When ready to mate, the male bird-of-paradise will perform a special dance while displaying his brightly-colored feathers and calling out loudly.
Males may perform by themselves or in competitive groups known as leks. Females will watch these displays and choose which male to mate with based on the males’ liveliness, plumage patterns, and strength.