How mistakes are made when choosing a mate

Black grouseAccording to evolutionary theory, animals should try to find the fittest mate with the best genes to pass on to their offspring. But over the past few years, a growing number of exceptions to this rule have emerged.

Research carried out by Dr Carl Soulsbury illustrates how young female black grouse can make mistakes in choosing a mate, before they have learned the successful rules of the dating game. A feature aimed at understanding these unusual pairings is part of December’s edition of New Scientist. In it, a variety of academics look at various species’ apparent mating mistakes asking the question ‘Why do animals mate with the wrong partner?’

Dr Soulsbury, lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, says some apparent mistakes really are just that.

He said: “Black grouse are of interest because they have a particularly interesting mating system called a lek, where large groups of male grouse gather in open areas and display to the females. It’s quite a tough selection process and in some years 90 percent of females could choose the same single male.”

Within the lek, poorer quality males are pushed to the outer edges, but some of them still manage to strike it lucky by catching the eye of naïve female yearlings going through their first mating season.

For grouse, the rules of dating seem to be learned from their peers so time is needed for them to appreciate what sort of mate they should be looking for.

Dr Soulsbury’s research is just one of a handful of examples chosen by New Scientist to explain how animals make apparently ill-advised choices during mating.

Life Sciences lecturer to feature in New Scientist

New lecturer at the School of Life Sciences, Dr Carl Soulsbury, is to feature in the New Scientist’s December edition.

Dr Soulsbury’s research focuses on life history strategies and his work with black grouse will be used to illustrate the perils of sexual selection in nature, based on the winter meeting of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour held last December on “Why do animals mate with the wrong partner”.

It is just one of a handful of examples picked from the meeting to explain how female mate choice can be complex and what can be viewed as “wrong” mates may not always actually be wrong.

Dr Soulsbury came to the University of Lincoln following a post-doc in Finland working with black grouse, said: “Black grouse are of particular interest because they have a particularly interesting mating system called lek, where the male grouse gather in open areas and display to the females. It’s quite a tough selection process and in some years, 90% of females could choose the same single male.”

As well as continuing research on black grouse, Dr Soulsbury’s future work will involve magpies and how they alter egg quality and schedule egg production to benefit their own and offspring’s future success.

Commenting on the upcoming research, Dr Soulsbury said: “You need long-term data so my hope is that I will have enough time to put things in place to start the research next spring.”

He added: “My work links with both the existing people and the other new academics here and it’s a fantastic opportunity to be a part of a research-led university.”