February is a month of romance—from the classic candy hearts, to a dozen red roses, many of us choose to express our love a little extra this month thanks to the timeless holiday that is Valentine’s Day. While plush teddy bears and puppies are also a commonality among this day’s gifts, it might be more fitting for us to give our loved ones a plush pufferfish, or shingleback lizard, as those are the real romantics of the animal kingdom.
Let’s look at some of the more underrepresented love stories that take place out in the wild. Shakespeare once said, “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” – but Mother Nature might have him beat on this one.
OR-54 was a well-known female gray wolf in the state of Oregon. In January of 2018, OR-54 left home in search of a mate. It’s typical for young wolves to leave their birth packs to start their own, but OR-54 was different. Traveling 13 miles per day, she crossed two state lines into California and then Nevada. Sadly, OR-54 was found deceased on February 5, 2020 at the age of three. Her cause of death is unknown but her voyage amazed scientists and the public alike. Gray wolves are prolific breeders and it’s not unlikely for them to travel up to 500 miles in search of a mate. Once this mate is found, they mate for life and raise a pack of their own. Traveling for a lone wolf is dangerous so they usually search for a mate quickly. OR-54 traveled on her own for two years and walked nearly 17 times the typical distance for a lone wolf. Because she was radio collared during her search, biologists were able to measure her exceptional journey at 8,700 miles! And though OR-54 did not end up finding her lifelong mate, she never stopped looking.
Nigel the Gannet
In the 1990’s scientists deployed 80 decoy gannets onto Mana Island of New Zealand as a part of a seabird project to bring gannets back to their native distributions. Mana Island, like many other islands of New Zealand had been overrun with invasive predators, which drove out much of the native fauna. The concrete decoys were scattered across the island in hopes to attract and encourage real gannets to one day settle and nest on the island once more. In 2013, Nigel arrived and became the first gannet to nest on Mana in nearly 40 years. However, instead of bringing other gannets along with him, he remained alone on the island and courted with one of the decoys. Nigel treated the decoy as any other male gannet would their lifelong mate. He groomed it and constructed a nest made of twigs and mud for it. Unfortunately, Nigel died a mate to the stone gannet and only a few weeks after other birds finally started to follow suite and settle onto the island. While Nigel wasn’t able to be with a real mate, he paved the way for future gannets to be comfortable nesting and raising young of their own on Mana Island once again.
This small saltwater fish has a unique, and time-consuming way of attracting mates. Male pufferfish spend days laboriously creating geometric, circular patterns in the sand of the seafloor. These elaborate circles contain carefully aligned ridges and valleys, which the male then decorates with seashells and pebbles. The male pufferfish must work diligently, as currents can wash away these formations quickly, causing the circles to be built anew. Once a circle is completed, females will come to inspect them. If they like what they see, the male pufferfish has found his mate! The female will lay her eggs in the carefully placed fine sediments in the middle of the circle and the male will then fertilize them. Afterward, the male pufferfish will stay and watch over the eggs for another six days, guarding them. Scientists aren’t quite sure what features the female pufferfish is looking for in these structures, but there is no doubt about the amount of time and effort that goes into their construction—all to attract a mate who will leave him behind to babysit.
Shinglebacks are a species of blue-tongued skinks that are native to Australia. These slow-moving lizards are committed to long-term relationships. Unlike most lizards, the shingleback lizard is monogamous and returns to the same lifelong mate year after year for breeding. Living in the wide-open country, these lizards will wander the sandy desert alone until it’s time to breed in September–November. The longest recorded breeding pair was together for 27 years!! Scientists believe that monogamy in this species is beneficial because pairs that are familiar with one another tend to breed earlier on, and earlier breeding is consistent with higher reproductive success.
Most penguin species are monogamous, but monogamy can mean either a lifelong commitment, or just the same breeding pair through one continuous breeding season. African penguins fall under the former classification. Endemic to South African coasts, the African penguin is well adapted to life at sea and land. After reaching sexual maturity around four years old, male penguins will start courting the females by making donkey-like calls. Once accepted by a female, the two will bond for the rest of the breeding season and their lives. African penguins breed in large colonies and return to the same rocky shoreline year after year to nest. Both male and female penguins take turns incubating the eggs and share feeding responsibilities once the chicks have hatched. Avian species are the most likely animal to be a part of a monogamous relationship, with 90% of all birds practicing monogamy.
While it is human nature to want to anthropomorphize these bizarre behaviors as romance or love, we can’t be sure. Oftentimes monogamy in the animal kingdom can be chalked up to biological forces or reproductive advantages. Whatever the reasons may be, there is no doubt that these animals work particularly hard for their opportunity to find the perfect mate.
What other monogamous species or elaborate mating rituals are you familiar with in the animal kingdom?
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