Animal Emotions

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Bowerbirds: Do They Have Green Thumbs?

Male bowerbirds appear to grow a garden to attract females.

The lives of nonhuman animals (aka animals) continue to fascinate us. They're smart, emotional, and moral beings and often do things we never imagined they could. 

Just recently another "surprise" discovery came our way. We've learned that male bowerbirds appear to cultivate plants to attract a mate. More specifically, "Male spotted bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus maculatus) build structures, or bowers, from twigs before intricately decorating them with objects to attract a female. One of the males' most desirable decorations is the berry of the Solanum ellipticum plant." It turns out that the more of these plants there are the higher a male's mating success. 

A slightly edited summary of the original publication reads: Cultivation may be described as a process of co-evolution and niche construction, with two species developing a mutualistic relationship through association, leading to coordinated change. ... Cultivation is rare but taxonomically widespread, benefiting the cultivator, usually through increased access to food, and the cultivar, by improved growth and protection, driving co-evolutionary changes. ... Humans cultivate more than food, producing clothing, construction materials, fuel, drugs, and ornaments. A population of male spotted bowerbirds Ptilonorhynchus (Chlamydera) maculata uses fruits of Solanum ellipticum, not as food but as important components of their sexual display. Here, we show that males indirectly cultivate plants bearing these fruit — the first example of cultivation of a non-food item by a species other than humans. Plants appear at bowers following male occupation. Males benefit, exhibiting more fruit at their bowers. Plants benefit because fruit are deposited in better germination sites. Fruits from plants near bowers differ visually from those far from bowers, and look more similar to fruits that are preferred by males in choice tests.

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For those interested in the evolution of human behavior this is a very interesting finding. The bowerbirds are clearly shaping the distribution of plants in the area around their bower, but is it cultivation? While the birds don't intentionally grow the plants, Joah Madden of the University of Exeter in the UK notes, "some hypotheses favour similarly unintentional origins for human agriculture, suggesting the bowerbirds' activities could just about fall under that definition."

Stay tuned for more fascinating discoveries from the amazing world of animals. The more we learn the more blurred is the border between "us" and "them."

The teaser image by can be found here

 

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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