Animal Mating Systems

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Most animal species have social systems different to those of humans. Learn about the different mating systems in the animal kingdom, then test what you've learned with a quiz.

What is a Mating System?

As humans, it's easy to get wrapped up in the way that we live, especially in terms of our social relationships. While many humans may have multiple romantic partners in their lifetimes, there is a strong tendency towards settling on a single, monogamous relationship. We have moral systems, legal partnerships and societal norms surrounding this behavior. But humans are only one animal species on the planet Earth and not all animals behave the same way.

A mating system describes how an animal society is structured in terms of sexual reproduction and (sometimes) pair bond behavior. Different kinds of animals may mate in totally different ways. Perhaps males have multiple female partners, or perhaps the reverse is true. Perhaps partners mate with only one another, or perhaps not. Much is determined by the animal's environment and what behaviors have been helpful for the survival and well-being of the species.

The Four Mating Systems

There are four main mating systems: monogamy, polyandry, polygyny and polygynandry. Monogamy is a system in which two animals mate with only one another. (The prefix in monogamy - mono - comes from a Greek word that means one.) Polyandry, polygyny and polygynandry are all different types of polygamy. Polygamy is a mating system in which the animals in a partnership mate with multiple partners. (The prefix poly comes from a Greek word that means many.) Let's go through each of the four mating systems one at a time.

As aforementioned, monogamy involves two partners - usually a single male who mates with a single female; however, homosexual monogamous partnerships have been documented in some species as well. The two partners form a lasting sexual bond and usually help each other in meeting their daily needs as well as raising offspring. In some animals this is a life-long pairing. For example, pigeons are known to form life-long pair bonds. However, penguins only form seasonal pair bonds. Even if an animal society is generally monogamous, two partners may not always be 'faithful' to one another. Swans sometimes mate outside of their primary partnership.

Despite the fact that many humans favor monogamous sexual relationships, it is relatively rare throughout the animal kingdom. We are not currently sure how monogamy evolved since it doesn't aid genetic diversity very much. However we think it may occur when there are a multitude of females available in an animal population, when there is a huge benefit to having two parents care for young or when the male in a partnership stays near his young to prevent other males in the vicinity from killing them.

Polyandry is a mating system in which one female gets mating rights to multiple males. This is also quite rare, but has been found in multiple species. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the mating habits of the female deep sea anglerfish. The small male anglerfish finds a female and bites her which releases a chemical that combines the two bodies. The male then dies and his body is gradually eaten and absorbed by the female.

Female Anglerfish

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