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Wild Romance: Weird Animal Courtship and Mating Rituals

Think Valentine’s Day inspires silly displays in the name of romance? Heart-shaped candies and sappy cards are nothing compared to the show that nature puts on. From balloon-blowing seals to penis-fencing flatworms, here’s a selection of some of the flashiest—and weirdest—ways that animals show off and compete to win mates. (Related: “Why Sea Slugs Dispose...

Think Valentine’s Day inspires silly displays in the name of romance? Heart-shaped candies and sappy cards are nothing compared to the show that nature puts on.

From balloon-blowing seals to penis-fencing flatworms, here’s a selection of some of the flashiest—and weirdest—ways that animals show off and compete to win mates. (Related: “Why Sea Slugs Dispose of Their Penises.”)

1. The Tickler

The 39 colorful avian species known as birds of paradise use their fantastic feathers to seduce females with elaborate courtship displays. The male twelve-wired bird of paradise really knows how to tickle the ladies.

In an intimate act that scientists call “wire-wipe display,” during courtship the male twelve-wired bird of paradise repeatedly brushes the female’s face with the dozen stiff feather shafts protruding from his lower torso. The female obviously finds the sensation appealing: She often approaches the male from behind to place her head among his “wires.”

Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

2. The Balloon Artist

To signal sexual availability, male hooded seals can inflate their uniquely elastic nasal cavities and membranes into what looks like a pink balloon.

3. The Moonwalker

This little guy’s dance moves may look comical to us, but they’re sexy to female manakins. The club-winged manakin can even serenade mates with its wings.

4. The Swinger

Talk about free love: The sea hare, a kind of sea slug, is a hermaphrodite that sometimes mates in chains, with the animals in the middle acting as both a male and a female simultaneously.

5. The Clingy Boyfriend

Female anglerfish have the unique advantage of a built-in fishing rod. Seeking easy access to food, male anglerfish will use their teeth to hitch a permanent ride on a female—which basically makes them parasites, but also means she doesn’t have to look far for someone to fertilize her eggs when needed.

6. The Gift-Giver

Male bowerbirds collect all sorts of trinkets—such as plastic rings, shiny tinfoil, and snail shells—to woo females into their elaborate bachelor pads.

7. The Lover, and the Fighter

For hermaphroditic flatworms, love is a battlefield. They engage in “penis fencing” until one manages to pierce the other’s skin and inseminate it, determining who will play the part of the female in this strange underwater mating ritual.

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Meet the Author

Amanda Fiegl
I'm an associate editor at NGM, where I write and edit stories for both our print and digital editions.