By Maneka Gandhi*
Many people find the unwritten rules of etiquette in flirting difficult to follow. The Natural History Museum had an exhibition called ‘Sexual Nature’ in which they taught humans, from the wealth of knowledge accumulated from research by zoologists, how to flirt effectively.
The peacock’s tail is a famous example of sexual selection. The male possessing the largest and most colourful tail will win the ladies, because it’s a sign the male is fit and healthy and his genes will ensure the survival of her offspring. In the wild, the males of many species have flashy colours while the females are drab. Perhaps human males need to be more gaudy.
Birds will often pick at their feathers and flick their wings as a way of attracting the attentions of the opposite sex. Scarlett Macaws will preen themselves, and each other, during courtship. Human females play with their hair, lick their lips and adjust their clothing, while men pull in their stomachs, expand their chests and straighten their clothes. Female gazelles assume specific body poses to signal that they are ready to start mating, while flamingos perform salutes with their wings. In crocodiles, the female arches its tail out of the water if she is interested in a courting male. Look for the signs.
It’s not love at first sight but at first smell
Mouse lemurs detect the chemical and genetic signature of potential mates through pheromones. Male orchid bees travel long distances to pick up the best scents as females are drawn to the best smelling males. The North American bull moose marks his ground with urine to attract females. The female gypsy moth’s odour is so powerful that a single molecule can be picked up by a male seven miles away. A male elephant looking for love has mucus oozing from his cheeks and he gives off a smell that can be picked up half a mile away. Smelling good is a must to attract the opposite sex. Women can manipulate how their ‘dates’ see them with scent. One study found that men perceived women wearing a spicy floral perfume to be an average of twelve pounds lighter than those sporting a different aroma.
Men hate it when they see a female they are attracted to, surrounded by competing males. The male cuttlefish holds the answer. As he swims his way to her the other males let him go straight to the target female. Magically he has the ability to show one side of his body as ‘female’ to the competing males, whilst the other side displays his male complexion. Advice from the cuttlefish – approaching softly is far less threatening. One of the most vulnerable areas on many an animal’s body is the throat. Many species (dogs, wolves, fish, and reptiles) bare this area when trying to prove their good intentions, whether it’s to members of the opposite sex or a more dominant member of their own packs. Even crocodiles will stick their necks out when an alpha-croc swims by. What could be a better way to prove you are harmless.
The red-capped manakin is a great dancer and he uses his moves to woo the ladies. The bird often takes an apprentice to help him perform the enthusiastic dances and aid in attracting a mate. In the human world, having support from a friend, who can help to make you look good, is a common and effective technique.
Mimic your mate’s movements
When North American whooping cranes go courting, they use a principle called isopraxism to establish rapport. The male faces the female, flaps his arms, and bobs his head up and down. To show she is equally smitten, the female mimics his signals in syncopated rhythm. As he bows she rises and as he rises she bows until they are ready to mate. Grebes perform complex dances where the male and female mimic each other’s choreography to show they are paying each other undivided attention. All living things find alikeness reassuring, so isopraxism works wonders for humans, too. If you cross your legs, lean back in your chair, or sip your drink as your date does, you’re showing him or her that you’re on the same wavelength, paving the way for more romantic mirrorings in the future.
Emperor penguins stand face to face with their head and neck extended upwards. For humans, moving close to someone but not touching them can be a major tool in flirting.
Be devious rather than direct. The three-spine stickleback fish is famed for its “zig-zag dance,” a ritual where the male swims back and forth in front across the female’s field of view. Not only does it give the object of his affection time to check him out from head to tailfin, it’s also less threatening than if he’d approached her straight on. Seeing a head-nod, a smile of recognition shows your silent pass has made a positive impression.
Think of original ways to court her. Male howler monkeys court their beloveds by waggling their tongues at them. She gives him a quick tongue flick back. He waggles it at her again even more vigorously. Soon they are sitting on the branch, facing each other staring into each other’s eyes, waggling tongues like mad.
You can always try music. Giant Pandas sing ‘love songs’ to one another. The Tungara frog swells up like a balloon and bellows loud croaks to attract a mate. Females choose males on the basis of the best calls – which are not always the loudest, deepest, or most complex. Each female prefers a unique sound. Find out what she likes. Mexican free-tailed bats take love songs to a new level. They chirps, buzz and trill to attract females and warn other males. Giant Pandas sing ‘love songs’, too, a variety of barks, moans, honks, roars, growls and squeals when looking for a partner. Female pandas use their own chirps, snorts and chomps to convey information.
Always have exemplary manners. Before they get down to serious mating, penguins bow to each other:
The golden lion tamarin seduces with his hands. He offers to delouse the lady when courting her and his skilled touch often seduces her. Snails caress each other with their tentacles in order to find out if they are suited for each other. For humans, getting close to someone can send out a strong signal and touching them briefly on the arm or hand can be a hard signal to miss.
Go slow and steady on the dating, like seahorses, and make friends with each other. Two budding lovers meet up every morning at the crack of dawn to partake in a dance. Seahorses like being around each other. Their dance, that can last up to 9 hours, involves tail wrapping, face nuzzling, and colour changes. After the female lays her eggs in the male’s pouch, she continues hanging around him, and she greets him every morning. They’ve even been observed holding tails and going on strolls. They mate for life and she doesn’t get distracted by other males, no matter how bright their colours shine.
Gifts are a good way to date. The blue jay gives lots of different gifts of food to his beloved. Penguin males collect pebbles to give to females, while magpies collect brightly coloured objects to impress their females.
Displays of affluence help. A bowerbird designs grand elaborate palaces using just flowers, twigs and seashells at his disposal. Female bowerbirds choose their mate based on the male’s design skills. Men display mobile phones or flashy cars. However don’t offer more than you can deliver. Take roosters: A male may prance and call out that he’s come across food. Females come to check out what he claims to have. But when the hens discover a rooster can’t offer what he said he could, they move on.
Put some effort into your wooing. Dolphins in love are constantly nuzzling and staring into each other’s eyes. The male Californian Mouse helps groom and feed his date, bringing her water and doing the housework. In order to catch the attention of a pretty girl, male elephants compete to see who can be the nicest to her. The bull will defend her from other suitors, bring her food, caress her with his trunk, and squirt her with water.
Being choosy is the most important rule for mating in the wild, though sometimes it takes a lot of searching. Barnacle geese have several relationships before they find a permanent companion. And then they remain monogamous. But don’t ask for the moon from your man. If he fails you are likely to lose him. The extinct Giant Elk eventually grew such long antlers that they couldn’t fit between trees in their native habitat and so died out.
Humans aren’t the only species to form lasting relationships. Arctic terns, snow geese, swans and many other birds are also loyal partners to the end. Swans have been given MRI scans while being shown pictures of their loved ones. Different parts of the brain glowed with pleasure. Scientists compared swans’ MRIs to happy human couples. When the people were shown pictures of their partners, the same parts of the brain lit up.
Whatever you do, don’t court like the hippo who flings his faeces into the face of the girl he fancies. Or the white-fronted parrot who enjoys kissing so much that he often vomits down the female’s beak.
For more advice read the book, Wild Connection: What Animal Mating and Courtship Tell Us About Human Relationships.
*About the author: Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is a Member of Parliament and leader of animal welfare movement in India. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org