Love birds and their wingmen in lab coats

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by Aditi  – When scientists turn into wingmen/wing-women, they get results, period. #ScientistsDoItBetter

Everyone needs help in love sometimes; even if they are literally named love birds. A team of Dutch and Chinese scientists recently helped out their less fortunate feathered subjects in finding love.

The scientists were interested to find out if problem solving could indeed win the male Budgerigars any luck with the (Budgerigar) ladies. In a recent test of “brains over brawn” female budgerigars chose new males that are capable of solving problems and get snacks that their old males cannot. Interestingly, this preference is only for males and not for females with same snack-retrieving ability.

To be fair, the males left behind were not totally incompetent, the rival budgerigar suitors had been secretly trained by their scientist wingmen/handlers.

This is not the first time scientists have tried to measure mate choice as a function of intellect. However, they usually try to gauge intellect of animals through proxies such as mating calls or mating songs.

Darwin had proposed a long while ago that cognitive abilities could be under selection pressure by mate choice. While correlations exist between cognitive abilities and longevity and between cognitive ability and fidelity, it is extremely hard to prove that mate choice for intellect exists. In other words, it is hard to determine if mate choice puts selection pressure on cognitive ability.

In order to solve this conundrum, the scientists gave the female budgerigars a choice between 2 pairs of males. The scientists then meticulously identified which male the females spent most time with and tagged him as the preferred male.  The less preferred male out of the two choices was then whisked away for hard training. He was trained to obtain snack bars from a container with an invisible opening. Over the next few days, both males were then provided the same complex container with snacks while the female  watched them. The originally preferred males that were not trained gave up easily, while the trained but originally less-preferred males were able to retrieve the snack. After observing these males, the females started spending significantly more time with the less preferred males – in other words, their preferences changed.

Now it is possible that the females were swept away because now the less preferred males had food, but it turns out that is not the case. In some cases, the scientist provided ablimtum food to the less preferred male and no food to preferred male. In such cases there was no change in the females’ preference for males. Hence the females’ change in preference was related to the cool new skills acquired by less preferred male.

The same correlation did not hold true when the females observed two females budgerigar go through the same paradigm. Hence there is a plausible chance that the female mate choice does indeed select for cognitive abilities.

If you want to see clips from this cool study please see this:

Reference

Jiani Chen, Yuqi Zou, Yue-Hua Sun, and Carel ten Cate (2019). Problem-solving males become more attractive to female budgerigarsScience, published online on 10 January 2019 ahead of print

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