PBS: What Females Want and What males Will Do

PBS premieres a two-part Nature special this weekend, “What Females Want and What Males Will Do.” The documentary follows a number of scientists studying mating and courtship behavior in animals ranging from spiders and ducks to baboons and sage grouse.

One of the researchers taking part is Gail Patricelli, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. Patricelli has been using a robotic model of a female sage grouse to study male courtship behavior. In the breeding season on the Wyoming prairie, male sage grouse stake out a territory and perform an elaborate courtship dance to attract a mate. But as Ellen Gary reports for the Philadelphia Daily News, it doesn’t always work out well.

Most never get lucky, though thanks to Gail Patricelli and the robotic grouse she calls her “fembot,” a few maybe got further than expected, considering that “usually five or six males out of 150 that are out there that will copulate at all. Most of the rest of the guys … are doing their dance all day long, and they will never get to mate,” said Patricelli, a biologist at the University of California, Davis.

“For two or three years, they will never get to mate. And there’s usually one or two males that will mate with 38, 39 females during this two- or three-week period of time. So (the others) get to court the robot, and as far as they’re concerned, they’ve managed to court a female (even if) they don’t get to copulate with her.”

It’s always tricky to make extrapolations from animals to human behavior and vice versa, but as Gary notes it does put the behavior of certain human politicians into perspective.

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