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Animal Attraction On Assignment

Animal Attraction On Assignment

Animal Attraction
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Photo captions by
Jennifer Steinberg

Photograph by John Michel Lenoir    
By Virginia Morell

Males will do whatever it takes to win the mating game: sing, dance, fight a rival, build a house, give a gift. But in the end, it's usually the females who do the choosing.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

It's a blustery spring day in the Australian outback, the kind that makes you think rain must be on the way, although there hasn't been a drop in months, and the ground is brown and parched. In some animals, frogs for instance, a dry spring can slow down or stop altogether the normal, romantic inclinations that come this time of year. But the lack of rain hasn't deterred the male spotted bowerbirds.

Under old peppertrees, thornbushes, and stands of oleanders, they've built elaborate U-shaped arenas of dried grasses, 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 centimeters) high and 12 to 20 inches (30 to 50 centimeters) long. They've decorated them with piles of sun-bleached sheep vertebrae, shiny aluminum foil, pop-tops from beer cans, shards of broken windshield glass, and little strips of red and blue plastic. The fanciest bowers feature special, seductive tidbits: a silver fork, the shoe token from a Monopoly game, old gun shell casings, red, blue, and purple glass of the deepest hues. The birds have arranged their treasures with an eye to the light—how does that bone pile look when the morning sun hits it?—and to their symmetry: silver metal hoops of unknown origin, for example, placed at equal distances from opposite ends of the bower.

Now a male can do little more than watch and wait. If he's built a good bower, then he'll succeed in life's ultimate contest and win the top prize: a female who chooses him as a mate.

"That's really what it comes down to," says Gerry Borgia, an evolutionary biologist who has studied the mating behaviors of bowerbirds for 23 years. "So you wonder sometimes when you see poorly built bowers," he says, pointing to one in disarray. "You want to say to the guy: 'Hey! This is about your reproductive success! Get moving! Straighten those straws! Find some more bones! Why be a C student?' "

Borgia, a hefty, middle-aged man with a broad, gap-toothed smile, bends over a video camera he's placed a short distance from the bower and changes the tape. He's stationed similar cameras with microphones at 22 bowers scattered across the sheep and cattle stations near the sleepy town of Nyngan. The cameras are equipped with motion-detection sensors and record whatever the male birds—or their female visitors—do within the bowers. Later, in his University of Maryland lab, Borgia's students will review the tapes, picking out the ones that show what male bowerbirds might dream about: a female entering the straw bower, watching the male perform and sing for her, and, if she is well pleased, accepting him as a mate. Borgia isn't sentimental about this latter event, referring to it simply as a "cop"—short for copulation.

"You watch enough of these cops, and you begin to get a feel for why the female chooses one male and not another," he explains. "It's my guess that this guy isn't going to do well. I mean, that's pathetic," he says, waving his hand at the bird's puny pile of vertebrae. "And the thing is, he took over this site from an older male who died, but who had a great bower with lots of bones. And they're still here! This new guy just hasn't made the effort to move them to his bower."

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Watch a male bowerbird put fast moves on a female in a wing-flapping, chirping display.

Videography by Dr. Gerald Borgia

RealPlayer  WinMedia


Snails armed with Cupid's arrows and salmon in the wild bring nature to your desktop this month.


A horned frog's cheek-ballooning love song makes an amorous e-greeting.

Final Edit

Rescued from the cutting-room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of a horned frog giving a blow-out performance to attract a mate.


Mating Game
When it comes to picking a partner, who makes the final call?

Male      Female

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Would you believe the females of some spider species eat their partners? Such is the case in the spider Argiope aemula. Scientists call this mating phenomenon gastronomic burial, but it can also be described as cannibalism. Typically the male spider tries to fend off the hungry female before copulation, but his drive to inseminate the female overrules his instincts; he dies in the act. The female spider not only receives the sperm required to carry on the species, but also gets sustenance.

—Nora Gallagher

Did You Know?

Related Links
Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Chapter IV, "Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest. Sexual Selection."

Sounds of Australia
Listen to the distinctive call of the bowerbird as well as other sounds from the Australian rain forest.

Discover more about sexual selection in bowerbirds and the evolution of male display.


Attenborough, David. The Life of Birds. Princeton University Press. 1998.

Cronin, Helena. The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gould, James L., and Carol Grant Gould. Sexual Selection: Mate Choice and Courtship in Nature. Scientific American Library, 1989.

Judson, Olivia. Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creatures. Henry Holt and Company, 2002.


NGS Resources
Insects With Unique Vision: Mating Males Zero In. National Geographic Books, 2000.

"Males Compete but Females Decide Winners," National Geographic (January 1997), On Television. 

Carrier, Jeffrey, C. "Wild Mating of the Nurse Sharks," National Geographic (May 1995), 44-53.


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