Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships

Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships

by Jennifer L. Verdolin


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Wild Kingdom meets Sex and the City in this scientific perspective on dating and relationships.

A specialist in animal behavior compares the courtship rituals and mating behaviors of animals to their human equivalents, revealing the many and often surprising ways we are both similar to and different from other species.

What makes an individual attractive to the opposite sex? Does size matter? Why do we tend to "keep score" in our relationships? From perfume and cosmetics to online dating and therapy, our ultimate goal is to successfully connect with someone. So why is romance such an effort for humans, while animals have little trouble getting it right?

Wild Connection is full of fascinating and suggestive observations about animal behavior. For example, in most species smell is an important component of determining compatibility. So are we humans doing the right thing by masking our natural scents with soaps and colognes? Royal albatrosses have a lengthy courtship period lasting several years. These birds instinctively know that casual hook-ups are not the way to find a reliable mate. And older female chimpanzees often mate with younger males. Is this the evolutionary basis of the human "cougar" phenomenon?

Fun to read as well as educational, this unique take on the perennial human quest to find the ideal mate shows that we have much to learn from our cousins in the wild.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616149468
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 812,508
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer L. Verdolin, an expert in animal behavior, is currently a research scientist affiliated with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (Duke University) in Durham, NC, where she studies lemur personality and social behavior. In addition to publishing in peer-reviewed journals, she has written for Scientific American, has her own Psychology Today blog called Wild Connections, and has a weekly segment on the DL Hughley Show called “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal.” Visit her online at www.jenniferverdolin.com and on Twitter @JVerdolin.

Read an Excerpt



By Jennifer L. Verdolin

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer L. Verdolin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-946-8



It wasn't until I was about eleven years old that I became acutely aware that there was a difference between boys and girls. Mind you, this was not a difference that I perceived, but rather, one that I was told existed. It all happened when I wanted to play little-league football. For as long as I could remember—which when you are eleven seems like an eternity—I had played neighborhood tag football. You know, the kind where you draw the plays in the sand on the edge of the road, on the grass, or even on the back of your teammate's T-shirt.

Anyway, I was told, unequivocally and without exception, that because I was a girl I was not permitted to play official little-league football. Only boys could play. This didn't make sense to me, especially since I had spent at least two years honing my football skills in the street.

I think the boys in the neighborhood got the same message, because suddenly they didn't want me to play with them anymore. The older I got, the more I noticed this pattern, and I remained perplexed. While all my girlfriends had visions of princes and castles, I had dreams of being a wide receiver in the NFL, despite the rules that clearly prevented me from participating.

The divergence didn't stop with sports. Soon after, I received a Barbie house for Christmas while my brother received the coveted erector set. Oh, how I was jealous of his erector set! Then, as I got older, the girls around me began thinking about what clothes to wear, which bag went with which outfit, and how to get the attention of that cute boy while I was trying to figure out how to climb that tree in the backyard, which mouse to play with, and how on earth I went from having two guinea pigs to six.

Into my twenties, the opposite sex remained a puzzle that I couldn't quite figure out. I knew I was attracted to men but, for the most part, I felt like (and wanted to be treated like) I was just one of the guys. As time went on, I became quite curious about this "other" sex, and I began to wonder if males were really so different from females. If they were, how did those differences influence how we interacted with each other? And why did it all seem so difficult?

Given my early adoration for and fascination with animals, my challenges in the dating world, and my questioning nature, it was only a matter of time before I found myself studying animal behavior and mating systems.

I will never forget the day in graduate school, while coteaching an undergraduate biology class, when we showed a movie to the students detailing why sex exists. I must confess that I had never pondered this particular question. I simply took for granted that we are a sexually reproducing species, and never gave it another thought.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that the evolution of sex is mysterious and the subject of much discussion among scientists. Whoa! Why hadn't this been part of my sex-education class? Like many of you, my sex-education class had diagrams of the human reproductive tract and details on why not to have sex. Who can forget those pictures? But why do we have sex? After all, not every organism reproduces sexually.

The asexual approach seems to be working well for the whiptail lizards. As many as fifty species of whiptail lizards reproduce without having sex. The appropriately named New Mexican whiptail is the official state reptile of New Mexico. I wonder if officials in New Mexico knew that the lizards never have sex before they adopted the species to represent their state.

Anyway, these little lizards can make their homes in dry riverbeds or vacant lots, eating everything from crickets to scorpions. When you reproduce by making clones of yourself, males are not required, so naturally all adult New Mexican whiptails are female. The strange part is that sometimes females do engage in "fake" sex. I know, you probably thought the strange part was that females could produce baby lizards without a male. Maybe it's just me, but I happen to think simulated sex between asexually reproducing female lizards is a tad weirder.

This fake sex pretty much follows the rules of regular lizard sex, which makes it all the more interesting. I mean, how do these females know what to do? It usually begins with one female chasing another female around, nipping at her heels. Then the female being chased assumes the donut position common to mating lizards, where curled up like a donut, she signals that she is ready. With one female pinned down by another, the one on top uses her tail to "have sex" with the other one. They reportedly thrash about, eyes closed and panting. Until now, I did not know that lizards panted. Why do some females do this? Apparently, the ones that engage in simulated copulation are stimulated into laying more eggs.

Insects and other lizards, some snakes, and even a fish, the Amazon Molly, join whiptails in the pursuit of a sexless life. Okay, maybe whiptails are sexing it up just a little bit. Nevertheless, given that at least some species do not ever sexually reproduce, there must be some evolutionary advantages to not dealing with the whole boy-meets-girl thing.

One major benefit is that you don't have to share your genetic contribution with anyone else. The genes that are passed on to the next generation are, most of the time, faithful copies of the original. A second advantage is that one can skip all the wining and dining that goes into finding, attracting, and keeping a mate. All of this activity takes time, energy, and effort. Depending on the species, it can take precious minutes away from a very short life or years away from a relatively long one. A third plus is that one avoids all the fighting and competing over mates that is so common in the animals, including humans, that sexually reproduce.

Given what can be gained by not having sex, it starts to make sense that scientists have spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why organisms would trade it all in. For sex to come about and then stick around, the pros have to outweigh the cons. We'll look quite a bit at the balance between costs and benefits throughout the book, since they are really what drive the development and persistence of many things, especially behavior. Clearly, since the majority of species do sexually reproduce, there are enough pros—other than the fact that it feels good—to overcome all of the real or potential costs of having sex.

How can we go about figuring out what these pros are? One clue can be found in those species that flip-flop between cloning themselves and having sex. One con is that an individual that exclusively clones itself has an Achilles' heel. It may be perfectly suited to current conditions, but as we all know, conditions change, often rapidly, and asexually reproducing species are unable to readily adapt. Why? Because strictly asexually reproducing species usually cannot produce new combinations of traits that might let some individuals survive better than others during harsh or unpredictable conditions. They lack diversity, and diversity is advantageous for long-term survival of a species.

Just as we generate entirely new dog breeds, like the Labradoodle, by combining two different breeds, sex shakes things up, shuffles the genetic deck, and creates a novel mishmash of characteristics. Variation. Diversity. Good stuff. Sexual reproduction improves the ability to fight disease, and, like I mentioned, helps individuals better deal with changing conditions.

In some sense, the advantages of sexual reproduction are like the advantages enjoyed by people who can adapt to different situations more readily than those who may be rigid and inflexible. To some extent then, those species that can reproduce either way, sexually or asexually, might have an even greater advantage. For instance, what if for some reason there are suddenly no males around when a female is ready to reproduce? Not a problem if you are a hammerhead shark, a komodo dragon, or a boa constrictor.

Hammerheads, like all sharks, are cartilaginous fishes. Until an unusual chain of events, which began in 2001, it was believed that these animals, together with mammals, were not capable of virgin births. No more. In what was like an episode of I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant, the staff at a Nebraska zoo was quite shocked to discover that their female hammerhead shark had become pregnant even though they didn't have any males. The initial thought was that the female, while still sexually immature, had mated with a male before being captured. Females of many species can store sperm for years. But a quick genetic test revealed that the baby female hammerheads, or pups, were exact replicas of their mom. They were clones. You may love 'em or hate 'em, but the shark coolness factor just went up a notch.

For humans and all other mammals though, it looks like sex is the only way to go. This brings us to a very interesting point about humans. Except for in vitro fertilization, we need to have sex to reproduce, and since we are adding approximately 228,000 babies to the world every day, that equals a heck of a lot of sex. The funny thing is that lots of people are doing it, but very few people are talking about it. And I don't mean women saying that men are thinking with their "other" head or men complaining that they can't say a word without their girlfriend or wife biting their heads off. I mean good, healthy, positive sex talk and talk about the sexes. That is where I come in. For all of you who grew up with moms who said "youknowwhat" (as one word, no hyphens) instead of penis, this birds-and-bees approach to talking about sex will be refreshing.

So let's look again at those headless boyfriends out there. Humans may use this image as a metaphor for getting their heads "bitten" off by an upset partner, but this is a real problem ... if you are a European praying mantis. It is a myth that all species of praying mantis females, those crazy looking insects with alien-like heads, eat their mates, starting with the head. But it does happen, especially when the female is hungry. As you can imagine, males aren't too keen on being eaten.

Praying mantises are fairly voracious predators that use movement as a cue that a tasty meal is nearby. As a result, should the female look in the direction of the male as he approaches, he will become motionless, waiting for her to turn her head the other way. This is because the only reason praying mantis females chase males is to capture them and eat them. Once a male manages to get close enough to land on a female, smartly positioning his head in the direction of her tail end, he may take up to sixteen minutes before attempting to flip around and make genital contact. Male praying mantis foreplay is simply trying to figure out his chances for survival.

If a male mates with a female and survives, he immediately makes a run for it by falling off of her. No sense hanging around and pressing your luck. Despite many successes, European praying mantis males fail to survive in 30 percent of these sexual liaisons. However, should the female bite off his head, this does not deter the male. He remains committed and fully capable of completing the act. He is able to do this because when she starts chewing his head off, a nerve is severed that frees the male from any inhibitions he may have had, thereby allowing him to continue mating all the way through to ejaculation. Even as the female eats her way down, perilously close to his "youknowwhat." Biology is strange indeed.

If talking about praying mantis sex doesn't break down your sex-talk barriers, at least it can make you feel heaps better about your own sex life. Not to dismiss our long list of human hang-ups and problems, but at least we can all somehow feel just a bit better that we don't have to deal with the problem of being eaten alive by our mates. It's all about perspective.

Although talking about sex is a good place to start, the impetus to write this book came from another place altogether. During graduate school I found myself in an extremely abusive relationship. Fortunately, after I graduated I was able to get out of the situation, and after a few months of freedom I began to take stock of my life, specifically the tragic dysfunctional nature of my relationships. Here I was, a woman with a PhD in evolutionary biology studying the social and mating behavior of wild animals, but for the life of me I could not figure out how dating, courtship, and "mating" were supposed to work in my own life. I became convinced that I was behaving in a maladaptive fashion when it came to love. Now, when I use the word mal-adaptive, I mean dysfunctional, not productive, or just plain not suited to the environment or circumstances.

Given that, I decided I needed to take a long, hard, honest look at myself. Talking to friends about all my hardships and confusion, it seemed that I was far from the only person who had more questions than answers when it came to dating, mating, and/or finding Mr. or Mrs. Right. Was there even a Mr. or Mrs. Right to be found? And what do you do with him or her when you find them?

When I thought about it, I realized that I knew the ins and outs of the mating behavior of the animals I studied, but I knew very little about my own species or even about myself. Then one evening, while questioning everything I had been doing in my "love" life, it suddenly dawned on me that finding the answers might just take a little, okay a lot, of research. It was time to get down to business and look at human problems (including my own) through a biological lens.

I decided to put all my years of studying wild animals to use in my dating life to see what would happen. In other words, maybe I could learn something about my love life from birds, squirrels, monkeys, and other animals. I figured that since you don't see female baboons or prairie dogs bemoaning how they can't get a date, wandering around confused about whether a guy really likes them, or going to great lengths to embarrass and humiliate themselves for the attention of yet another unavailable mate, maybe, just maybe, there was something I was missing. So I hatched a plan to conduct an experiment and do some "field" research. After all, as a scientist, my inquisitive mind doesn't turn off when I leave the field site or lab for the club or bar.

My effort to collect data presented me with a potential downside common to animals and people—experiencing rejection. Out in the wild, there is a lot of rejection being doled out and received in the mating game. And sometimes giving it can be just as bad as receiving it. I think the similarity ends, however, with how we humans feel about and interpret rejection. This reminds me of Koko the gorilla. As you will discover throughout this book, my first love is gorillas, and Koko the gorilla, currently forty-two, has always been one of my favorites. I remember seeing a documentary about how the researchers training Koko in sign language wanted to find a mate for her. She had a companion, Michael, but perhaps because they were raised together, their relationship had never blossomed.

Her caretakers, taking a decidedly modern approach (at least for the late 1980s/early 1990s), presented Koko with videos of suitable males. Something about Ndume must have spoken to Koko, and she picked him. Unfortunately, Ndume did not reciprocate her romantic desires. As I recall from the documentary, Ndume rebuffed her advances, even running from a frustrated Koko.

It is impossible to say for sure whether Koko suffered emotionally from this clear-cut rejection. What we do know is that she and Ndume developed a close friendship that has stood the test of time, even though they never mated. I figured that if Koko could handle rejection, so could I. This had not always been the case.

In my early twenties I had a boyfriend, Ryan. A techie who worked for Motorola and was a huge fan of Bob Dylan, he was totally cool in a relaxed hippyish way. The fact that we had nothing in common had no influence on my dating him. Instead, I was suddenly a huge Dylan fan, loved tie-dye, and was eager to learn about techie things. This cartoon caricature of myself worked—for a while. After three months, he abruptly told me that he needed "a copilot in life," and I wasn't it. Just like that. Naturally, I vigorously objected and spent the next several weeks twisting myself even further into impossibly complex knots trying to fit his version of what a good copilot would be.


Excerpted from WILD CONNECTION by Jennifer L. Verdolin. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer L. Verdolin. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note 11

Chapter 1 The Birds and the Bees 13

Chapter 2 First Impressions 25

Who Cares What I Look Like? 26

Pickin' a Good One-A Mate, That Is 28

What Body Parts Are the Most Revealing? 30

Noses, Teeth, Hair, Feet, Oh My! 37

The Chemical World: Does He Pass the Sniff Test? 44

Smart Women Are Sexy … Right? 49

First Impressions Last 50

Chapter 3 False Advertising 51

Looks Can Be Deceiving 54

Antlers Don't Lie 67

Tails and Tits 73

Primping, Preening, and Rock Stars 79

Chapter 4 Sorry Guys-Size Matters 83

Big Benefits 84

Are You Lookin' at Me? 85

Can I Offer Some Protection, Ma'am? 90

Just Say It: Penis Size 96

Silent Competition: Sperm Warfare 102

Did Napoleon Have a Complex? 103

Brains versus Brawn 106

Being a Lover, Not a Fighter 109

Chapter 5 On Being a Choosy Female 111

Being Choosy and Eyeing Up the Males 112

Copycat! Copycat! 119

Female Competition: From Copycats to Cat Fight 122

Movin' on Up 127

Girls Just Wanna Have … a Little Variety, Please 129

Boy Toy, Anyone? The Allure of the Younger Male 133

Tick-Tock: Is There Really a Clock? 136

When Things Go Terribly Wrong: The Maladapted Female 138

Chapter 6 Peacocks, Lions, and Men 143

The Cost of Being Male 144

Getting the Girl of Your Dreams-Can I Buy Your Love? 147

Alpha, Beta, Gamma-It's Not Easy Being on Top 150

Harassment and Coercion-A Biological Look 155

You're Mine … All Mine 160

Just Put a Cork in It! 161

The Hard Facts about Sperm 164

The Choosy Bachelor 165

When Things Go Terribly Wrong: The Maladapted Male 168

Chapter 7 Are We Mating or Dating? 173

Benefits of a One-Nighter 176

Does It Pay to Play? 180

Dating as Information Gathering and Jumping Hurdles 186

SEX-Everything You Wanted to Know about Bonobos 192

Chapter 8 The Three Cs: Communication, Cooperation, and Compromise 203

You Just Don't Understand! 204

Did You Hear What I Just Said? 206

Lighten Up, I Was Only Joking! 211

Let's Work Together-"Paddle on the Left, You Idiot!" 214

Cooperation and the Slippery Test of Time 216

The Art of Compromise 221

Chapter 9 Getting Cuckolded 227

Till Death Do Us Part 228

Your Cheating Heart 230

How to Lose Your Lover 235

I Think I Want a Divorce 240

Till Death Do Us Part Revisited 242

Chapter 10 In a Nutshell 245

Acknowledgements 255

Notes 259

References 273

Index 299

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