Last week we had Valentine's Day and the inevitable flurry of lovey-dovey stories, so it's timely to tell tales of some of our loving wildlife couples.
Nature is largely "red in tooth and claw", and in our observations and studies of animals we don't generally apply our notions of romantic love and relationships to our fellow animals. Mostly our observations may be fair enough, much of our wildlife adheres to the "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" method for relationships. But it seems there are plenty of amorous animals out there, if you know where to look.
Romance is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "to try to influence or curry favor with especially by lavishing personal attention, gifts, or flattery." A closer look at animal behaviour here and around the world shows some great examples of wildlife couples who invest extra time into wooing mates.
Kiwi love affair
Our national bird is just one example of the variety of species that take a far more long-term approach to love. Most adult kiwi are strongly territorial and generally mate for life. Perhaps a key to their long-lasting relationships is that baby kiwi are almost entirely independent when they hatch out compared with chicks of birds such as sparrows that hatch out relatively helpless and require a high level of parental investment.
Young kiwi chicks hatch as miniatures of their parents and wander off into the bush to live their own lives within a few days of hatching. Not having years of caring for young ones (not to mention teenagers under your roof) might just help keep the flame burning for kiwi parents.
Pairs made in paradise
Paradise shelducks are another example of birds that mate for life. These native ducks can be seen throughout much of the country and are easily identified by the distinctive white head of the female and the darker male. It's very rare to see paradise ducks without their "other half" and I confess that when I spot them in paddocks or parks while I'm out and about, I look very hard to make sure there are two of them; seeing a lone paradise duck always makes me feel a bit sad. Even their calls complement each other, he with a deeper "honk", she with an echoing "heek" while they are flying about. Maori called them putangitangi, with the "tangi" part a funereal reference to their soulful cries.
Albatross parental pride
As the debate continues here and around the world about gay marriage, our wildlife continues to show examples of kind, nurturing same-sex relationships. The best example I have encountered in my career is the occurrence of female-female pairs of Northern royal albatross on Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. When I worked for DOC in Dunedin, the albatross colony had a pair of females who paired up every year together, going through exactly the same bonding rituals as the male-female pairs and even successfully raising chicks. In this pair's case, the chicks were sometimes foster chicks from pairs where either a parent had disappeared, or the egg or chick came from parents who weren't up to scratch.
Albatross parenting is hard work, with the birds needing to alternate guarding the chick and feeding it after days fishing at sea. Parents continue to feed the chick until the chick is eight months old. For the vulnerable colony of threatened albatrosses (albatri?), having successful parents is a crucial contribution to the survival of the species. In the past few years another pair of females have raised chicks at the colony (that started as a two-females-and-one-male relationship, but he flew the coop, leaving the girls to raise the chick). Albatross pairs need to have a really strong bond in order to successfully raise chicks, so they need to keep the romance alive.
Less involved in the romance and more of the love 'em and leave 'em brigade are those big green budgies of love, the kakapo. A Lothario through and through, the male kakapo goes to elaborate efforts to seduce a female, including constructing a complicated "track and bowl" system in the bush. The male will go to quite an effort to make up to 200 metres of tracks in the bush, which he hopes to lead his lady on to. Then he sits in carefully constructed bowls, shallow depressions in the soil, blows himself up like a bullfrog and "booms" in a deep, drum and bassy, Barry White sort of way. Lady kakapo find this irresistible, and are drawn to the males for one night only - during which point mating occurs, he disappears and she is left to raise chicks on her own. Male kakapo aren't necessarily shining examples of responsible fathers but they get points for their romantic efforts.
Big is better when it comes to booming male kakapo - using their deep bass calls to attract females. But they're commitment-phobes and don't play any role in parenting. (photo: DOC.)
Love's true arrow
I've written before about how amazing our native snails are, particularly compared to our garden variety, well, garden snails. But when it comes to love, the common garden snail has ours beat. Like they pinched it straight from Cupid, some snails and slugs fire an actual dart at each other before mating. This dart looks just like it came from the quiver of a cherub on any Valentine's Day card. It serves no true sexual purpose; instead it seems to be for a bit of flirting or foreplay before the reproductive deed occurs.
You can watch a video of snail mating antics here.
I'm sure there are dozens and dozens of romantic examples in nature - do you know of any? What's your favourite wildlife romance? I'd love to hear about it.