Bagging a Territory to Secure a Mate

Different animals have different reproductive strategies. The only common characteristic is that each strategy is purposefully designed to secure the best reproductive partner available. By doing this an animal aims to give their off-spring the best genetic prospects.

A common reproductive strategy is for the male to acquire a particular territory and then to seek to show off his acquisition to prospective female partners based on the premise that because they have such a good territory – one that would be very amenable for raising off-spring – then they must be a worthy reproductive partner. It is the female that chooses who she reproduces with – usually on the basis of the male with the best territory or the male that impresses the most.

An animal that purses such a strategy is the nightingale bird. They are monogamous and once they pair bond they go on to raise their young together.

This contrasts with other reproductive strategies such as those animals that seek to show off their superiority by direct physical conflict with each other or animals that pursue a quantitative rather than qualitative reproductive strategy, opting to procreate as much as possible, believing that the more partners they have the better their reproductive chances.

In relation to territorial males, given that both territory acquisition and sexual activity usually takes place within a relatively short time span, at the same seasonal time, in a small, specific location, there are a couple of perplexing issues:

Firstly, as females search for their partner, considering the territories of males in their locality, how do they know when to settle for a male? With the males having set up their stall the females assess them in order to gauge their best reproductive prospect. But there will be a lot to choose from.

If females spend too long searching for the best mate then they may lose out as less picky females take partners.

It’s like playing Blackjack – Do they stick or twist? Twist too many times and there’s the risk of going bust; settling too early with what is in hand means they may lose out on more fruitful genetic rewards.

In fact, why isn’t there more competition between the females to reproduce with the more prized males?

It may be a matter of numbers – there’s no need for females to compete with each other because there’s plenty of males around.

Or it may be that females have a sense of their own reproductive desirability. They know where they are in the female pecking order so they know where they should be pitching in terms of choosing a male partner.

A second perplexing issue which follows on from this is whether or not the male has any say in his choice of female partner.

Given that, in many cases, the male will be committing to this female by helping to raise their off-spring it is important that they get a female that is reproductively advantageous for them, either in terms of adding to their genetic make-up or in terms of the qualities the female has to raise off-spring so that they have a better chance of reaching maturity.

For the male to accept any female (perhaps the first one that comes along) means that they are not being selective. They are contented to merely reproduce. This does not necessarily guarantee their genetic future. It is counter to their innate desire to secure the best genetic prospects available to them.

What’s the point of acquiring the best territory if they’re then willing to accept what is perhaps a second-rate partner?

The fact that males have out-competed each other to get the best territories means that males will have a good indication of where they are in the species’ pecking order. This must surely impact on their view of the acceptability of different female partners.

And yet, strangely, as we have already noted, there does not seem to be any competitive positioning amongst the female population.

Again, it may relate to numbers. An abundance of males in comparison to substantially fewer females may mean that males are contented to just attract any female. It’s better to produce something – even if it may not be the best – than nothing at all.

Perhaps males may even have some means of sending out subtle signals as to the type of female they wants to reproduce with. For instance, in publicising whether or not they want to reproduce with a young, inexperienced female or one that is more mature and has perhaps been more reproductively successful in the past.

There may also be aspects of the male’s courting ritual that help to ensure they get the right partner. As part of their attempt to allure a female, besides showing off their territory, males may perform some ritual dance, may posture or may sing or call out. If so, do they always give one hundred per cent in the delivery of that performance? Or do they, on seeing the female, think that they can do better and therefore only deliver a half-hearted performance?

The one certainty that we can take from such reproductive behaviour is that although individually some animals may get it wrong – they may fail to reproduce or they may not reproduce as optimally as they could – the fact that they continue to survive as a species means they must be doing something right. Their genetic strategy is working.