Nature's Most Unusual, Amorous, And Alarming Mating Rituals

All's fair in love and war, but for the Carolina mantis it can seem a bit brutal. Sari Oneal/Shutterstock.com

Dating can be a real headache. Choosing a venue, outfit, and appropriate first-impression anecdotes puts a lot of pressure on prospective lovebirds, but the pomp and ceremony of human dating pale in comparison to some of the performances put on in the animal kingdom in the quest for a mate. If you’re feeling a little fatigued with the process of dating, perhaps these examples of nature’s most extreme and intriguing mating rituals will help you to appreciate that things could be a lot more complicated than download, swipe left, swipe right.

Dancing birds

Perhaps most famous of the amorous animals are the performances put on by some of the globe’s avian species while trying to draw the eye of a prospective partner. When it comes to bird dancing, the process begins with the setting of the scene. Some male birds will gather in groups of two or more in a clearing with an established “lek”, a space where the males dance or sing to attract the attention of an onlooking female as seen in the sage grouse. Other species such as the six plumed bird of paradise get to work preparing their own bachelor pad, cleaning the place up using anything from snakeskin to feathers, clearing the area of unwanted clutter, and collecting alluring red berries before whipping out what looks like a skirt and busting a move for his betrothed. Satin bower birds practice similarly bizarre preparation, building an impressive, gravity-defying bower nest and decorating it with anything blue from berries to flowers and bottle caps.

Once the stage is set things only get stranger. The vantablack superb bird of paradise has far fewer females than males in the population, meaning competition for her fair lady’s hand is fierce. As such, these birds have adapted a unique and complex courtship process. They dance sporting a black feather cape and blue-green breast shield and at the same time start snapping their tail feathers to make a loud noise as he swishes his head from left to right to impress his audience.

Some bird’s stage takes them to the water, where mating rituals are often mirrored by partners in a wonderfully choreographed performance that outdoes even the most excellently executed of TikTok trends. Flamingos are famous for their marching, strutting their stuff and aloofly turning their heads as they walk, sometimes in their thousands. Swans meanwhile will pair off to perform for one another, but perhaps the most notable example of love on the lake is the hooded grebe, a critically endangered bird found in the southern region of Argentina. I could try and put the performance into words, but the Tango in the Wind is really something better seen for oneself.

Deadly dating

Dancing is all well and good, but tensions run much higher in far smaller creatures. Whatever your arachnophobia status, peacock spiders are arguably one of the most beautiful minibeasts walking the Earth. These tiny, brightly colored, and fast-moving spiders have evolved to perform an unusual dance using a fan on the males’ carapace as a means of avoiding being murdered by the female. Females are bigger than males and unyielding with their feelings, making it hard for approaching males to assess if she’s interested in having her eggs fertilized or is actually just hungry. As such, the male rhythmically shimmies his shimmering fan and waves about his legs, all the while dancing past the carcasses of fallen lovers that came before him. Even if a male is successful, they often dismount to go on their merry way only to be cannibalized by the female as they try to make an exit.

Spiders aren’t the only ones risking life and limb in order to procreate; praying mantises also exhibit a sex life rife with murder. Females release pheromones that draw the males in, but they are also partial to the heads of male mantises, and these prospective partners can make up to around 60 percent of the females’ diet during mating season. The behavior it seems is adaptive for females as those who eat males produce more eggs than those who don’t, but the encounter has a less favorable outcome for their partners who have been filmed trying to mate with females even after they’ve lost their head. As first-time horror stories go, this one’s really up there.

Puffer fish art

Dancers aren’t the only practicing artists in the animal kingdom, and beneath the ocean waves sits one of the planet’s greatest sculptors. The small Japanese puffer fish doesn’t look like all that much on the surface, with coloration that allows it to blend in quite seamlessly with the seafloor. As such, the males need to get creative in order to draw the attention of potential mates but, fortunately for them, great power sits in their tiny fins.

When ready to mate the males begin constructing an artwork on the seafloor that exhibits precision and measures around 2 meters (6.6 feet) in width, not bad for a 12-centimeter (5-inch) fish. To avoid having his work swept away by the current, the puffer fish must work around-the-clock for a week to complete the series of rippling lines, which create a circular signal that screams “I am worthy”. It’s one of the most complex and precise structures created by any creature on the planet, making Valentine’s day chocolates seem a little silly by comparison.

Katie Goldin via iNaturalist/CC 4.0

Lockjaw lizards

Not all of nature’s most bizarre mating processes are as pleasing as dancing and artwork, and for one lizard in Los Angeles the process of copulating sounds like more stress than it’s worth. Southern alligator lizards, who partake in threesomes in 7 percent of mating interactions, will attempt to boost their mating success by locking onto one another using their jaws. The males are the lockjaw masters, and while the goal is to grab a female, they’re often spotted locked onto males instead. The behavior is a feat in jaw adaptation as it wasn’t previously thought possible for reptiles to maintain strength for such a long time.

So, the next time you find yourself exhausted at the idea of cleaning your flat, preening yourself, and working on your dance moves in order to impress a date, spare a thought for some of nature’s greatest triers. They might not always succeed in procreating, and sometimes don’t even make it out alive, by my word do they put on a show.

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