Love birds and their wingmen in lab coats
Everybody needs a little help in love sometimes, even when they are literally named love birds.
Dating is hard. Everyone needs help sometimes.
The scientists were interested to find out if problem solving could indeed win the male love birds (Budgerigars) any luck with the feathered ladies. In a recent test of “brains over brawn” female budgerigars chose males that are capable of solving problems and get snacks that their old male partners cannot retrieve. Interestingly, this preference is only for males and not for females friends that these feathered ladies hang out with.
No matter how good the snack and how efficient the snack-retrieving ability.
To be fair, the males left behind were not totally incompetent, the rival budgerigar suitors had been secretly trained by their scientist wingmen/wingpeople/handlers.
This is not the first time scientists have tried to measure mate choice as a function of intellect. However, they usually try to gauge intellect of animals through proxies such as mating calls or mating songs.
Darwin had proposed a long while ago that cognitive abilities could be under selection pressure by mate choice. While correlations exist between cognitive abilities and longevity and between cognitive ability and fidelity, it is extremely hard to prove that mate choice for intellect exists.
In other words, it is hard to determine if mate choice puts selection pressure on cognitive ability.
In order to solve this conundrum, the scientists gave the female budgerigars a choice between 2 pairs of males. The scientists then meticulously identified which male the females spent most time with and tagged him as the preferred male. The less preferred male out of the two choices was then whisked away for some secret training. Mission retrieving snacks from a foreign container.
He was trained to obtain snack bars from a container with an invisible opening. Over the next few days, both males were then provided the same complex container that housed the snacks while the female watched the battle of wits between the two males.
The originally preferred males had not received the training. They tried but they failed and hence they gave up easily.
The trained but originally less-preferred males, kept at it, they were able to retrieve the snack. After observing this, the females mate choice reversed.
She started spending significantly more time with the males she had rejected before.
Now it is possible that the females were swept away because now the less preferred males had food, but it turns out that is not the case. In some cases, the scientist provided a bountiful feast to the less preferred male and no food to preferred male.
But in the absence of the battle of wits, there was no change in the females’ preference for males. Hence the females’ change in preference was related to the cool new skills acquired by less preferred male.
The same correlation did not hold true when it was two females going through the same paradigm. Hence there is a plausible chance that the female mate choice does indeed select for cognitive abilities.
If you want to see clips from this cool study please see this:
Jiani Chen, Yuqi Zou, Yue-Hua Sun, and Carel ten Cate (2019). Problem-solving males become more attractive to female budgerigars, Science, published online on 10 January 2019 ahead of print
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