Danger? Ha! I Flirt in the Face of Danger!

We’re all familiar with that stereotypical scene in a horror movie that has a group of teenage heartthrobs on the run from some brain-crazy, blood-oozing, ugly zombie, right? Try to place yourself in the situation. You’re hunkered down in an abandoned farmhouse with a few of your buddies and some rather attractive females while a few extremely slow zombies poke and prod at your shoddy defenses and barriers. Your heart rate is up, your senses are on edge and every bit of your less-than-average intellect is at full alert.

Obviously it is the perfect time to gaze lovingly in a girl’s eyes while crooning some John Mayer, no?

For most species, sex is one of the last things on our minds when confronted with an immediate threat. But not so for the splendid fairy wren Malurus splendens. When a potential predator comes near and announces its presence, this genius of the avian world finds it the best time to start spitting out a love song for the local females.

It might not be the most common way of courting, but Emma Greig and Stephen Pruett-Jones of the University of Chicago’s Department of Ecology and Evolution are pretty sure they’ve got the reasons behind the strange behavior figured out. To test their theories, the researchers played recorded songs from the gray butcherbird (cracticus torquatus), one of the fairy wren’s natural predators. They then listened and watched carefully to what happened next.

All too frequently, the fairy wrens added their own little love song snippet to the end of the enemy’s call. The quick response time and common behavior almost sounded like the two were in a duet. The researchers hypothesized that the fairy wrens might have been trying to prove they had bigger balls than their sexual competitors by flaunting their cavalier attitude towards the gray butcherbird. However, the scientists failed to identify any trend that indicated only the stronger birds engaged in such behavior, so that theory was scrapped.

Instead, the group believes that the males are making use of the female’s heightened attention immediately following the potentially violent warning signals from a predator. And it seemed to be working. Females were much more likely to respond to the mating songs after they had heard the predator’s song than when the males were signing solo.

It’s almost as if they were people watching a movie rather than starring in their own. Come on guys, you’ve never taken a date to a zombie flick in the hopes that she’ll get squeamish and grab onto your arm? No? Come on, You’re not fooling anyone.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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