The Mating Game, a new exhibition at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum (WRZM), examines some of the most beautiful and bizarre courtship behaviours found in the animal world. Opening on 18 July 2005, it looks at the different senses animals use to locate a mate, and the methods they employ to win their mate over, from unusual acrobatics to gift giving.
The Mating Game uses real animal specimens and fun interactives, where visitors can guess the animal by the smell and sound it produces, and try on a selection of animal masks.
‘We decided to dedicate an exhibition to courtships because it is one of the most fascinating aspects of the natural world,’ said Paul Kitching of the WRZM. ‘For many species it can be a matter of life or death if their courtship signals do not work.’
Animals that live over a wide area rely on sound to find a mate. For example, male and female elephants live independently for most of their adult lives, so when a female becomes fertile (which happens for only two to four days every five years) she lets the males know by emitting a series of powerful low-pitched calls. Males can hear and respond to calls from up to four kilometres away. Whales can also communicate over huge distances. The song of the humpbacked whale can be heard underwater hundreds of kilometres away. It may last up to 30 minutes and is the longest and most complex song known in the animal world.
Sight is also an effective means of attracting and identifying potential mates. Colourful displays are most dramatically seen among fish, reptiles and birds. Although most mammals rely on smell and are less colourful, the male mandrill, a type of baboon, is a notable exception. The blue and red markings on the body of the most dominant male are a signal, which attracts females and repels junior males. The dominant male’s bright markings will fade when a new male takes his place.
Female red backed salamanders use their noses to pick their mate of choice. By smelling a potential mate’s droppings, they can tell what it has been eating and so determine the quality of its diet. The male with a high-quality diet is more likely to be a stronger and more successful partner.
Some species rely on their sense of touch to co-ordinate their courtship. The male American alligator strokes the female, rumbling gently and blowing bubbles against her cheeks. Their courtship is slow and quiet and can last for a number of days before mating takes place.
Many brightly coloured animals use dance to enhance their courtship displays. Male blue-backed manakins, a small bird with a brilliant blue back and scarlet head, team up with another male to attract a female using calls and an acrobatic dance. They display on the same branch, perched beside each other bouncing alternatively, accompanying each jump with a call. If a female approaches the acrobatics increase: each leap into the air, hover, then fly backwards to land behind the other in quick succession.
Other animals resort to bribery in order to attract a mate, by giving gifts. A male tern starts his courtship by bringing the female a small fish, held crosswise in his beak. This demonstrates his ability to provide for her and for their future offspring. He continues to do this long after he has been accepted as a partner. Gift-giving also occurs among some invertebrates. When the male Pisaura mirablis, a type of spider, detects the smell of a female nearby he hunts for a fly that, once caught, is wrapped in silk. When he finds the female he stands up on his rear legs and leans slightly backwards. The female approaches to take the fly from him and, once her fangs are safely embodied in it, the male is then able to mate with her.
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Admission : free
Location : temporary exhibition gallery
Opening hours : Monday to Saturday 10.00–17.00, Sunday 14.00–17.00
Access : Step-free access is limited to Gallery 1, the temporary exhibition gallery, the shop and Zebra Café at present
Visitor enquiries : 020 7942 6171
Website : www.nhm.ac.uk/museum/tring
If you would like to interview Paul Kitching, or would like to request images or further exhibition information, please contact:
Natural History Museum Press Office
Tel: 020 7942 5106/5654