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Bird’s mating dance leaves scientists goggle-eyed

June 4, 2011
Courtesy of UCLA
and World Science staff

A small bird called a golden-collared man­a­kin pe­r­forms a tough, com­plex, tir­ing court­ship dance that leaves its heart rate at some of the high­est lev­els in the avi­an world, bi­ol­o­gists say.

“The male jumps like he’s been shot out of a can­non,” said Bar­ney Schlin­ger of the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Los An­ge­les. “He sails like an ac­ro­bat and lands pe­r­fectly on a pe­rch, like a gym­nast land­ing a flaw­less dis­mount. Not only is there pow­er to his mus­cle con­trac­tions but in­cred­i­ble speed.”

A male gol­den-col­lared ma­n­a­kin. (Pho­to cour­tesy UC­LA)


Sub­tle dif­fer­ences in dance pe­r­for­mance spell the dif­fer­ence be­tween ro­man­tic suc­cess and re­jec­tion, Schlin­ger and oth­er re­search­ers re­port in the ad­vance on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B. “The females pre­fer the males that pe­r­form the el­e­ments of the dance faster and dem­on­strate bet­ter mo­tor co­ordina­t­ion,” said lead au­thor Jul­ia Bar­ske, a grad­u­ate stu­dent and doc­tor­al can­di­date at the un­ivers­ity. “Females pre­fer more ac­tive males that do more court­ship ac­ti­vity.”

“Jul­ia’s da­ta show that the females se­lect the males that com­plet­ed el­e­ments of the court­ship dance in 50 mil­lisec­onds (thou­sandths of a sec­ond) over the males that took 80 mil­lisec­onds,” Schlin­ger added.

The dance re­veals the ma­le’s speed and co­ordina­t­ion, Schlin­ger said. Bar­ske meas­ured the birds’ heart rates and found that while the heart rate is nor­mally 600 beats per min­ute or low­er, dur­ing the court­ship dis­play it can go as high as 1,300 beats per min­ute. “This heart rate is ex­tremely high; in the avi­an world, only hum­ming­birds have heart rates of 1,300 beats per min­ute,” Bar­ske said.

“Our da­ta sug­gest the court­ship dis­play is a proxy for sur­viv­al ca­pa­bil­ity,” Schlinger said. “To sur­vive in the wild, it’s an ad­van­tage to have ex­tra neu­ro­mus­cu­lar ca­pa­bil­ity. Be­ing faster can en­a­ble a golden-collared man­a­kin to es­cape a preda­tor.”

Golden-collared man­a­kins, or Man­a­cus vitelli­nus, live in Pan­a­ma, Co­lom­bia and Cos­ta Rica. For the re­search, Bar­ske spent three months in a rain­for­est near Gam­boa, a town along the Pan­a­ma Ca­nal, not far from Pan­a­ma ­city. She watched the birds for sev­er­al hours dai­ly, filmed 18 male birds with high-speed vi­deoand ultra–high-speed cam­er­as that pro­duced 125 im­ages per sec­ond, and recorded their court­ship suc­cess.

Video courtesy UCLA


Bar­ske can tell the birds apart from their leg rings and the loca­t­ion of their dis­play are­nas. Golden-collared man­a­kins live up to 14 years in the wild.

Dur­ing the dance, sev­er­al males gath­er in a small ar­ea, and each jumps from small tree to small tree while mak­ing a fast, loud snap­ping sound with his wings. He al­so does this wing-snap while pe­rched. When the male lands on a pe­rch, he rap­idly turns to ex­pose his feath­ers to the fema­le. It’s “in­tense, phys­ic­ally elab­o­rate, com­plex, ac­cu­rate, fast be­hav­ior,” Schlin­ger said.

The male pe­r­forms these feats “not nec­es­sarily be­cause he wants to, but be­cause that’s what the female re­wards,” Schlinger said. “If the female re­wards a slightly faster be­hav­ior, then the males will get faster. We pro­pose that elab­o­rate, ac­ro­batic court­ship dances evolve be­cause they re­flect the mo­tor skills and car­di­o­vas­cu­lar func­tion of ma­les.”

Dur­ing the six-month breed­ing sea­son, a female will watch a group of four to six males — “the patch of for­est erupts in sound,” Schlin­ger said — and choose one to mate with. The male of­fers no help in rais­ing off­spring.

Schlin­ger has stud­ied golden-collared man­a­kins for 16 years be­cause he “was so im­pressed with their fan­tas­tic be­hav­ior,” he said. “Here is a very small, 17-gram bird that is liv­ing 14 years in the rain for­est, tell­ing ever­ybody where they are… they are there year af­ter year.” Female golden-collared man­a­kins have a larg­er vis­u­al pro­cess­ing ar­ea in the brain than ma­les, Schlin­ger’s pre­vi­ous re­search has shown, sug­gesting females have a fast vis­u­al pro­cess­ing speed that lets them de­tect slight dif­fer­ences in the ma­le’s dance.


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A small bird called a golden-collared manakin performs a tough, complex, tiring courtship dance that leaves its heart rate at some of the highest levels in the avian world, biologists say. “The male jumps like he’s been shot out of a cannon,” said Barney Schlinger of the University of California Los Angeles. “It’s exquisite. He sails like an acrobat and lands perfectly on a perch, like a gymnast landing a flawless dismount. Not only is there power to his muscle contractions but incredible speed as well.” Subtle differences in dance performance spell the difference between romantic success and rejection, Schlinger and other researchers report in the advance online issue of the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “The females prefer the males that perform the elements of the dance faster and demonstrate better motor coordination,” said lead author Julia Barske, a graduate student and doctoral candidate at the university. “Females prefer more active males that do more courtship activity.” “Julia’s data show that the females select the males that completed elements of the courtship dance in 50 milliseconds (thousandths of a second) over the males that took 80 milliseconds,” Schlinger added. The dance reveals the male’s speed and coordination, Schlinger said. Using miniature telemetry devices, Barske measured the birds’ heart rates and found that while the heart rate is normally 600 beats per minute or lower, during the courtship display it can go as high as 1,300 beats per minute. “This heart rate is extremely high; in the avian world, only hummingbirds have heart rates of 1,300 beats per minute,” Barske said. “Our data suggest the courtship display is a proxy for survival capability,” Schlinger said. “To survive in the wild, it’s an advantage to have extra neuromuscular capability. Being faster can enable a golden-collared manakin to escape a predator.” Golden-collared manakins, or Manacus vitellinus, live in Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica. For the research, Barske spent three months in a rainforest near Gamboa, a town along the Panama Canal, not far from Panama City. She watched the birds for several hours daily, filmed 18 male birds with high-speed video and ultra–high-speed cameras that produced 125 images per second, and recorded their courtship success. Barske can tell the birds apart from their leg rings and the location of their display arenas. Golden-collared manakins live up to 14 years in the wild. During the dance, several males gather in a small area, and each jumps from small tree to small tree while making a fast, loud snapping sound with his wings. He also does this wing-snap while perched. When the male lands on a perch, he rapidly turns to expose his feathers to the female. It’s “intense, physically elaborate, complex, accurate, fast behavior,” Schlinger said. The male performs these feats “not necessarily because he wants to, but because that’s what the female rewards,” Schlinger said. “If the female rewards a slightly faster behavior, then the males will get faster. We propose that elaborate, acrobatic courtship dances evolve because they reflect the motor skills and cardiovascular function of males.” During the six-month breeding season, a female will observe a group of four to six males — “the patch of forest erupts in sound,” Schlinger said — and choose one to mate with. The male offers no help in raising offspring. Schlinger has studied golden-collared manakins for 16 years because he “was so impressed with their fantastic behavior,” he said. “Here is a very small, 17-gram bird that is living 14 years in the rain forest, telling everybody where they are… they are there year after year.” Female golden-collared manakins have a larger visual processing area in the brain than males, Schlinger’s previous research has shown, suggesting females have a fast visual processing speed that lets them detect slight differences in the male’s dance.