‘Romeo seeking Juliet in the animal kingdom’

In a planet alive with romance, adolescence is the time to master one’s moves
Animal courtship splash

Wondering how to woo your crush this Valentine's Day? When it comes to love, don't wing it — take a lesson from the birds (and bees) instead.

"Humans often believe romance is unique to our species, but it’s not," said Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, co-director of UCLA's Evolutionary Medicine Program. "Sexual conversations unfold across the animal kingdom between individuals who are sizing each other up."

Mirroring the drama of the human world, romance in the wild is never certain. Plenty of animal suitors get rejected.

"Unlike a dance or ritual with preset steps, the outcome of courtship hangs in the balance," said Natterson-Horowitz, who is also a professor of cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Her research and years of studying animal species in the field have led to new insights into human health and behavior.

With Kathryn Bowers, Natterson-Horowitz co-authored the bestselling "Zoobiquity," an award-winning book that proposes veterinary science and evolutionary biology are essential to understanding humanity.

Their latest book, "Wildhood," swings its lens to adolescence — a time of boundary-testing and sexual learning for every species. But for many animals, entering puberty doesn't immediately launch their love lives.

"It takes practice to become a good romantic partner," said Natterson-Horowitz. "And practicing is the purpose of adolescence."

Mastering courtship in the animal world can be ridiculously complex. Depending on the species, romantic overtures can run the gamut — from the musical to the acrobatic and death-defying.

  • Male humpback whales croon a deep-sea song that travels thousands of miles. When the song's vibrations hit a female whale's body, they may spark ovulation and magnetically draw her to him. Adolescent males can chime in, but they don't have the lung power to hit all the notes.
  • Bald eagles clutch talons and cartwheel together through the air in a downward spiral. Adolescents practicing the intricate duet can end tragically in a crash landing.
  • Albatross couples cocreate an elegant, synchronized ballet that bonds them for life. Perfecting the 25 intricate steps during adolescence, however, can consume up to five years of abstinence.

As a Valentine's Day takeaway from the animal kingdom, Natterson-Horowitz notes that we aren’t the only species seeking our soulmates.

"Research shows that when a Central American fish swims with its desired partner, its mood brightens and it sees the world as a better place," she said. "Just like us."

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