Males of many bird species perform elaborate courtship displays and dances that entice females into mating. This ritual acts as a precursor for females to choose males with “superior” characteristics, such as the ability to survive harsh environmental conditions, that she can ultimately pass on to her future offspring.
Male golden collared manakins (Manacus vitellinus) are no exception — in fact, they have one of the most acrobatic courtship rituals among birds. They hop quickly from tree to tree in a consistent pattern within their display courts, a dance culminating in the final courtship element that is performed on a specific tree (the mating sapling) to win the chance to copulate with a nearby female. In a new paper published in Animal Behavior, scientists asked whether this consistent courtship behavior changes with a sudden change in the environment. In other words, do the birds adapt their dances when the layouts of their display courts change?
The researchers first set out to measure different attributes of a courtship display, such as its duration and the speed of the courtship elements, from each of eight males. This was the pre-test phase. During the test phase, they placed a piece of bark on the mating sapling which was big enough so that the males wouldn’t be able to move it. They again measured the time taken for the courtship elements to be performed before the males perched onto an alternative mating sapling. They repeated the experiment at two different times each day for four consecutive days. Finally, in the post test phase, they removed the bark to see if the males came back to the original mating sapling or they continued using the alternative mating sapling.
They found that the male manakins repeated a courtship element of the dance to buy time into choosing an alternative mating sapling, thereby showing behavioral flexibility. Some males went back to the original mating sapling in the post-test phase, and some alternated between the original and alternate saplings. Further research would help in showing why some males prefer going back to the original sapling while some prefer both, and what this meant for their mating success with their female audiences.