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The `Wild’ Side Of Mating Rituals

Tallensi and Rendille do it exclusively with each other. Isadoro and PJ do it, too, but they’re not monogamous. Ditto for Elvis and Priscilla, which probably comes as no surprise.

Some do it all year round, some wait until spring, or when the climate or food supplies are just right. None do it for love, but to create offspring. Mating is serious stuff among the animals, birds, and even the fish at Franklin Park Zoo. And while the inhabitants don’t pay attention to the calendar, they are busy today with their version of what humans across the world are experiencing on Valentine’s Day: The mating dance.

While men and women are out selecting the finest chocolates and flowers, “their animal counterparts are digging up bugs and nuts to present to their mates,” said Khadija Lum, education program specialist. “A lot of animals bring a gift that says `I’m ready to mate.’ ”

“Reproductive strategies are different for all of the species,” said Dave Caron, tropical forest zookeeper, who led a tour as part of the zoo’s weekend program, “Sex and the City: Animal Magnetism in the Heart of Boston.” The two-hour program, restricted to those 21 and older, revealed tales about courtship rituals used for impressing mates in the tropical forest.

Tallensi and Rendille are pottos. The very primitive, and monogamous, nocturnal primates with enormous eyes, breed while hanging upside down from a tree, which is odd for the potto, who does “everything else standing up,” said Caron.

Isadoro and PJ are ocelots. She emits powerful pheromones when she wants to mate, and just in case she’s not exactly clear, “she also gives a blood-curdling scream like “Linda Blair in `The Exorcist,’ ” said Caron. “It’s bigger and wilder than any sound a domestic cat makes.”

Elvis and Priscilla are warthogs, which do not stay loyal to one another. But they do stay in family groups, unlike some solitary animals, like ocelots, tigers, and pygmy hippos, who don’t really like each other outside of breeding season. “If they cross paths the wrong time of year, it can get ugly,” revealed Caron.

The zoo program also taught humans a thing or two about dating from the point of view of the animal kingdom.

Want to attract a mate? Be like the peacock, with the prettiest display of feathers. Want to select the right one? Emulate the moorhens, which prefer short, fat, little mates, because they can better protect the eggs.

Want to flirt? Have a strong pheromone presence like most of the animals, though their version is urine, and even fouler scents. The purpose, not unlike perfume, is for males to detect the location of the females.

Other fun facts: Pygmy hippos, and hippos in general, do most of their breeding in the water. While there is no male at the zoo currently, “We once watched a `water ballet’ from the window, or more like two sausages rolling around,” said Caron, who admitted the voyeurs feared the animals would smack into the window in the middle of mating.

When alligators mate, they do a water dance, he said. Observers hear gurgling sounds and see vibrations in the water, although the gators don’t move at all. With crocodiles, however, more visual displays are apparent, like head splashing and posturing.

The unusual trait of African wild dogs? Females emigrate from group to group, unlike most animal social structures, where the males leave the group after breeding.

Even fish are in the dating game. The 2,000-gallon African cichlid tank is a “big singles market,” said Caron, where the males spend all their time protecting their territory and chasing each other down. The females protect their tiny eggs by containing them in their mouths, releasing them only to feed, then sucking them back up at any sign of danger.

During the zoo program, the mandrills, Charlie, Mandy, and son, Woody, seemed like a friendly looking family, but in the wild, when mating is done, another mandrill moves right in. They breed all year long but can only procreate at certain times.

While Woody entertained visitors by doing vine gymnastics and wrapping himself in hay, the father watched impatiently for the evening guests to leave so the lights would go out, and the mother did what appeared to be some very unappealing yoga poses.

“It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s a great way for the male to know she’s ready to breed,” Caron explained.

“Reproduction is a huge part of any animal’s life,” Caron said. “They all strive to pass their genes on; it’s very important.”

In the wild, some of these males never reach sexual maturity, and some seem unwanted by the females, with wasted genes, he said.

To the contrary, white-crested hornbill males seemed very mature, and a responsible role model. “It’s all about building up a bond,” Caron said.

When they’re ready, the female hornbill goes into a nesting cavity, like a tree or a nesting box at the zoo. After they mate, she helps him “plaster” her in with a mix of old fecal matter, wood, pulp, or clay, with only her beak exposed. She remains there 40 to 100 days hatching and raising the chicks, and he returns to pass her grapes and other food, beak to beak.


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