According 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.