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  Field Notes From
Animal Attraction

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Virginia Morell

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Saadia Iqbal


Animal Attraction

Field Notes From Author
Virginia Morell
Best Worst Quirkiest
    The highlight of reporting this story was seeing the variety of bowers that the different species of bowerbirds build. I joined evolutionary biologist John Endler of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, on a quick tour of sites where three species had bowers and were displaying for possible mates.
    One built by the toothbill bowerbird is very simple: just an oval of leaves placed on the forest floor. But the male has to be extremely attentive and remove any bits of litter or old leaves that fall on his pristine circle. The golden bowerbird builds an elaborate structure of sticks and twigs; he glues them together with his saliva and maintains the bower for several years. And a third species, the satin bowerbird, likes to find things in a particular shade of blue to place outside his bower.
    It was funny to see what the females of each species had driven these males to do, all to get their genes into the next generation.

    To get to the bowers every day, we drove across or around dozens of dead animals. I've never seen anything like the number of kangaroos and emus killed each day on the highways leading from the sheep and cattle stations to the town of Nyngan in New South Wales, Australia. Heads and tails and torsos were piled this way and that.
    Most everyone drives a 4x4 or truck of some sort. And vehicles come equipped with bull bars, grates that protect them when they hit an animal. Sometimes a kangaroo or an emu gets hit because suddenly it bounds into the road. But most of the time they die because the driver has a lead foot and can't slow down in time for an unpredictable animal.
    That part of Australia is beautiful, with wide-open spaces, forests of eucalyptus along the streams, big flocks of cockatoos, smaller flocks of emus, and mobs of kangaroos. But it seemed that the people there had forgotten how lucky they were to live in a country like that, with lots of wild animals about. It was as if they didn't see them anymore. They just mowed them down like figures in a videogame.

    On several tall mountains outside Tucson, Arizona, live a certain species of jumping spider. Wayne Maddison, a biologist from the University of Arizona, discovered that while the females look pretty much alike from mountain to mountain, the males look completely different. And the male in each species has to perform a particular dance, drumming his legs or waving his pedipalps in a specific order to persuade a female to mate with him.
    Wayne wanted to show me how the males dance, so we went to one of the mountains and collected specimens. Back in his lab, he placed a male spider in the lid of a cardboard box and put a female in with him. The male instantly pivoted toward the female. He started waving his arms and moving backwards and forwards like a rock star, but she just ignored him. After awhile he seemed to get tired, so he stopped dancing and turned his back to her. "Yikes!  Don't do that!" Wayne shouted. "She'll eat you!" 
    That was the best demonstration I saw of the hazards facing an amorous male: He's as likely to be eaten by the female or a waiting predator as to get a chance to mate.

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