Valentine’s Day is near. It is time to think about coupling. Let us look at the miscellaneous mating behaviour of other creatures, some gorgeous, some disgusting, and some downright horrific.
Let’s start with humming birds. The male whirls his wonderful tail to attract the female, a tail that, at 15cm, long is two times the length of his body. Many other birds perform spectacular dances to attract a female, and the peacock fans out his tail.
Male jumping spiders (Cosmophasis umbratical) display glowing patches of UV light. No light, no love.
Male mice sing ultrasonic notes which have to be his unique creation, different from the sounds she is used to from her relatives. Some male mammals, such as elephants and red deer, lower the pitch of their usual calls to signal they are searching for a mate.
The dancers and body movers
Song birds tap their feet. Small black male widow spiders vibrate their rump as they step on to the web of the female, maybe to warn her that he is coming for an embrace and not as prey to be eaten by her.
Some male animals are adapted to fight other males in the mating seasons: they have tougher skulls to utilise in head-butts. The spectacular horns of such species have evolved for such contests. Most of such fighters are polygamous, seeking to control a whole group of females by chasing off any other males who approach. In this way the next generation is sired by the strongest male.
The stabbers and drenchers
Some hermaphrodite snails, and sea slugs (Siphopteron), stab each other before copulating because this produces the necessary mucus. One species of spider (Argiope) has two sperm transfer organs, called pedipalps, which they insert into the two sperm sacks of the female – and then they die. Porcupines drench the female in urine.
Dying for love
Some species can only mate once and then they die. Pacific salmon, for instance, return up river to spawn and then die, their bodies eaten by other creatures. In some species, the female eats the male after copulation: the Praying Mantis bites off the head of the male and then eats the whole body for nourishment.
Male penguins, who are monogamous, search out rare pebbles to present to the beloved. Some birds, like sage grouse and puffins, scrape the ground: a behaviour seen in the archaeology of dinosaurs too, and believed to be because the scrapings provide vitamins needed for reproducing or nurturing. Puffer fish make beautiful circles in the silt, probably for the same reason.
The most famous example is the male bower bird, who builds the home and then stands at the threshold waiting for a female to make her selection.
Which of these behaviours can be detected in human kind? Male dance display in front of females is part of many African dance cultures. In the heyday of medieval jousting in Europe, the males in their costly and heavy armour performed on horseback before an audience that included ladies, some of whom had given a garter to their chosen knight.
Most cultures have traditions of love poetry or songs, right up to the lyrics of pop-songs on the airwaves today, the majority voicing the yearnings of the male.
What about dressing up to appeal to the opposite sex? Although in some eras costume for men (who can afford it) has reached gorgeous display (Louis XIV, or Henry VIII), mostly one can say that it is the females who dress to attract the males.
What about providing the bower or future marital home? In some cultures, this has been very important: for instance, in Jane Austen’s novels, the prospective mansions and parsonages are well-scoped.
One feature of male accomplishment unique to humankind is to display transport prospects. From charging up on a white horse or, in Regency times, the horse-drawn cabriolet, to the bicycle made for two, or the two-seater sports car. In all these, the human male has aspired to catch the female.
What about gift-giving? Many species, like for instance kingfishers, prove their food-fetching abilities by offers of prize fish for their chosen female. There is one species of spider that offers gifts beautifully wrapped in spider silk to the female, but often cheats with the quality of the contents, which may be a choice piece of prey (if the giver is in fact strong or rich enough to spare this) or just a left-over worthless morsel from the less able.
So, are there lessons in all this for our behaviour on Valentine’s Day? Do we do it with a dance, a song, a gift – or some other well-designed behaviour?