Animal Behaviors that Aid in Reproduction

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
Reproduction is the fundamental driving force behind animal behavior. Here we will examine some of the behaviors that ensure reproductive success, and you can test yourself at the end with a brief quiz.

The Drive to Reproduce

Living things all experience some kind of drive to reproduce. Animals exhibit all kinds of different behaviors to compete for the chance to reproduce. Why? Because reproducing means passing on your genes to the next generation, which is the ultimate success in the natural world. If a species doesn't reproduce, it will cease to exist!

Types of Reproduction

Some animals can undergo asexual reproduction in which they simply produce offspring by making a copy of themselves. Asexual reproduction involves subtle or non-observable behaviors, since no partner is needed.

Microorganisms usually undergo asexual reproduction and make identical clones of themselves.

Mostly this type of reproduction is done in non-animal species like bacteria or non-flowering plants, but there are exceptions like corals and some species of flatworms. Even these types of animals, however, only do this as a back-up plan when a mate is not available for sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is the combining of genes from two parents to produce offspring.

Though it requires a great deal of energy, sexual reproduction is advantageous in the natural world because it mixes two sets of genes, allowing for more possible outcomes in the next generation. Genetic diversity makes some individuals better adapted than others to handle illness, drought, or other factors of a changing environment. Therefore, the species as a whole is more likely to survive.

Genetic diversity is enhanced by sexual reproduction.

Mating Systems

The types of reproductive behaviors that occur among animals depends first on the type of mating system, or how animals group themselves based on who will mate with who. There are many different mating systems, but they fall into two categories:

  1. Monogamy, where one male mates with one female, and
  2. Polygamy, where one or more males mate with one or more females.

What makes a species monogamous or polygamous? It all depends on what will better help the offspring to survive. If the offspring need both parents to care for them, then usually a species is monogamous, with both male and female caring for the young. This arrangement works well for many birds--one parents takes a turn looking after the babies, while the other hunts for food. This way the babies are protected from predators, but don't go hungry. Teamwork!

However, if resources like food and water are abundant or clustered together, the young may not need both parents in order to survive, and polygamy may be the better option. In one type of polygamy, called polygyny, a male mates with multiple females, producing more total young while females alone care for the offspring. Many animals mate in this way, such as deer and lions.

Sea lions are polygynous animals that live in harems with one male and multiple females.
sea lion harem

Invisible Cues

When males and females of most animal species are ready for mating, their bodies release chemical signals. These chemical cues are detectable odors known as pheromones and can be powerfully attractive.

In many animal species, particularly mammals, females are only fertile during ovulation. This time period could occur every few days, weeks, months, or even years in some rare cases. Often times, either the female's body changes in physical appearance or she exhibits behaviors to signal to males that she is ready for mating. In humans, women ovulate once per month, and while there are no drastic changes during that time to signal this occurrence, there are chemical cues taking place!

Courtship Behaviors

In most sexually reproducing species, finding and securing a mate is key. Competition for mating is fierce and can involve all sorts of fighting, showing off, or tests of skill. Let the games begin!

To indicate that it is time to mate, or to attract a mate, animals engage in courtship behaviors. These behaviors can involve an unusual vocalization, coloration or pattern, or a dance of sorts. Most of the time, males are the ones who court the females, often with extravagant physical displays.

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