Misconceptions About Animal Relationships
To celebrate Valentine's Day, let's clear up some misconceptions about animal relationships with mates, families and other members of their species.
From humans to tiny insects, relationships with those of our species are vital to survival. Understanding how these interactions work can help humans better study the world around us and appreciate the diversity of different relationships. Let's dive into five misconceptions about animal relationships to celebrate Valentine's Day this year.
Emperor penguins are widely known for their co-parenting. From taking turns warming an egg to dodging hungry seals, these penguins are often idolized for their relationships. But contrary to popular belief, emperor penguins do not mate for life. Instead, they are considered serial monogamists. Each year, emperor penguins will usually select one mate to which they are loyal throughout the year. Together, they will raise their chick and depend on each other, but come the next breeding season, they are off to select a new mate.
But there's still hope for the romantics! Macaroni penguins, located along the sub-Antarctic and the Antarctic Peninsula, do mate for life! These smaller penguins typically pick a mate when they are five years old and will stay with that same partner for the rest of their lives. Much like emperor penguins, macaroni penguins will take turns hunting for fish and sitting on their eggs. After the eggs hatch, the males guard and care for the babies while the females return to the water to find food.
The red hourglass shape on the underside of an eight-legged black spider strikes fear in the heart of any person who stumbles into their path. Once considered to be dangerous during the mating process, scientists have discovered that not all black widows are as cannibalistic as we think. While some species of black widows sometimes eat their mates, they are in the minority as most black widows do not consume their partners.
In fact, it's often the males that are aggressive. Male black widows are very competitive with each other when trying to mate with a female. The female's web produces pheromones that act as a beacon for the males that then race one another to mate with the female first. Along the way, males will actively try to keep other males from even finding the female. For example, males will sabotage the competition by cutting the female widow's web. This disrupts the pheromone signal and discourages other males from climbing up the strands.
When thinking about wolf pack dynamics, most people think of the alpha male. The alpha male is described as the dominant, sometimes violent, group leader that runs the pack without input from others. However, the alpha—as well as his counterpart, the beta—are both misconceptions. Instead of a contentious group with a strict hierarchy, the wolf pack is a family.
The original conception of the alpha and the beta came from studies conducted on wolves living in human care. Humans, not understanding the dynamics of wolf packs, put together different wolves from different unrelated packs. As a result, a fight for dominance arose, and the misconception of the alpha and beta was born. In reality, wolf packs in the wild are usually a family made up of a breeding male and female and their children that are too young to set off on their own.
Although less fluffy than wolves, rattlesnakes also have a family-centric approach—at least for a little while. It was previously thought that rattlesnakes were solitary creatures. Adults would avoid each other outside of the breeding season, and babies would set off on their own immediately after birth. However, field studies have found that both adult rattlesnakes and mothers and their babies engage in social interactions.
Some species of rattlesnakes experience social buffering, meaning that the presence of another rattlesnake reduces stress levels. Humans experience the same phenomenon with other people. Scientists have also recently observed that many species of rattlesnakes, like western Maryland's timber rattlesnake, will protect their newborns from predators for the first couple of weeks of the babies' lives. Some babies will even spend their first winter in their mother's den.
Not to be overshadowed, platonic relationships are also prevalent in the animal world. Diving into the sea, we find the manta ray that is not as solitary as once thought. Manta rays engage in group social behaviors, playing together and gathering in large groups for feeding a couple of times a year. But their relationships go beyond the larger group.
Manta rays form acquaintances, and female manta rays even form long-term bonds with other females. Like many sea creatures, manta rays utilize feeding and cleaning stations where different animals congregate to eat or get things like parasites picked off their bodies by other fish. Manta rays will intentionally seek out those individuals they have bonds with at these cleaning stations. They will even swim beyond nearby stations to meet with a particular manta ray at one further away.
Relationships can be found in all corners of the animal world, from mating habits to familial and platonic interactions. The next time an animal relationship sounds too strange to be true, be sure to do your research!