Wild Connections

What blue-footed boobies and other animals tell us about human relationships

5 Valuable Dating Lessons From the Animal Kingdom

When it comes to courting, we can learn something from geese, elk, and lemurs.

We often seek human-driven guidance when it comes to dating, but since relationships can be a jungle, maybe there's something to be learned from courtship and mating in the wild. My new book, Wild Connection: What Animal Mating and Courtship Tell Us About Human Relationships, is all about what animals can teach us about dating. When I first set out to explore parallels between animal courtship and human dating, I didn’t expect to discover the wealth of sage advice offered up by our wild counterparts.

Following a Cliff Notes version of a few key takeaways. Consider it the Pocket Guide to Animal Dating.

 

1. Go ahead—be choosy.

Are you one of those people who just can't seem to find the right person because no one out there seems perfect for you? "Helpful" relatives and friends may have told you you’re being too picky. But you've actually got science—and a long list of wild animals—on your side. Being choosy is perhaps the most important rule of thumb for mating in the wild, though, granted, sometimes it takes a lot of searching. Just ask any barnacle goose. They don't settle—they have several relationships before they find a permanent companion. But in the end, they know, as you should, that the right match is out there, somewhere.

2. Be honest.

When it comes to displaying your traits to a potential mate, honest advertising is essential. Is your computer-savvy friend offering to help Photoshop your image for an online profile? Have you ever stretched the truth a bit so it seemed like you shared the same interests as an appealing potential date sitting across the table? We only have to look to the animal world to realize this is not the best approach. Put simply, animals don’t deceive each other about their appearance or personality to snag a mate. Have you ever seen a wild elk with fake antlers, or a hawk with claw extensions? There is only one thing to do: Be yourself. Have some flair, but only flash honest traits.

3. Keep attraction in perspective.

Does love at first sight exist? Actually, animals remind us love at first smell is more likely. But whether it'd a glance or a sniff, we are biologically wired to feel an intense and immediate attraction toward some people and not toward others. Yes, the effect is intoxicating—even mind-numbing. And this cascade of lustful chemicals coursing through our brains and bodies serves a very important function: It signals us that this magnificent person could make an excellent biological match for us to produce offspring with. For example, not unlike mouse lemurs, we also detect the chemical and genetic signature of potential mates through pheromones. Two people who are most opposite each other in their immune-fighting genes (Major histocompatibility or MHC) make the best pair. Aside from smelling each other’s genes, what we see when we look at one another person tells us a lot about their genetic and physical health. What does this rush of instant "love" not do for us? Predict long-term compatibility. So remember: Even though attraction is a necessary ingredient, it is not enough if you’re searching for a relationship that lasts longer than a ground squirrel's hookup (that's about 10 minutes!).

4. Are they really into you?

Many animals, both male and female, give clear signals that they are interested in a potential mate. But showing interest is often risky, taking up precious time, energy, and, frequently, resources. For most wild animals, the effort an individual puts into courting a mate is a key way of showing how much they dig a potential partner. We humans rarely need to show the same degree of determination as we seek signs of reciprocal interest—and certainly not the lengths to which some male praying mantises take things, sometimes (but unwillingly) providing its own body as food.

5. Actions always speak louder than words.

Some animals can talk a good game, but when push comes to shove they can’t back up their chatter. Take roosters: A male may prance and dance, and he may even call out that he’s come across food. The result? Females come to check out what he claims to have. Sometimes, though, he’s exaggerating—by a lot. In those cases, when hens arrive at the scene and discover a rooster can’t offer what he said he could (specifically, food), they move on. The bottom line? Talk is cheap, for roosters and humans.

Recap

Be choosy, be honest, don’t let pheromones sweep you off your feet, pay attention to a potential partner's interest, and don’t forget to focus on what people do—not what they say. But even if you follow all of these wild animal "rules," your love life can still go awry. There are many other hurdles to overcome for a relationship to make it in the long run. Don’t worry; our animal guides have something to say about those, as well. Stick with us, and, like the homing pigeon, you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Jennifer Verdolin, Ph.D. is an animal behavior expert currently studying lemur personality and social networks at Duke University.

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