To fight, or to show your might,
What better than to hone tools that can skewer or bite.
Oh my ladylove, once I’m done with the scuffles,
I will be right there by your side.
In the animal kingdom, males can get very busy. They spend an immense amount of time and effort to woo the ladies with tactics and antics. They also seek and protect their turfs – ‘bachelor pads’ that can double up as hotspots with food and safety. These act as a major draw factor to females looking for a resourceful mate.
Doing so involves guarding, displaying to fend off potential attackers and getting into direct combat with fellow males or other attackers. Well-endowed males are usually armed with tusks, horns, antlers, etc to tackle these fights and to defend!
What do the gaudy pincer of the fiddler crab, massive prongs of the rhino beetle and impractical-looking horns of the Nubian Ibex share in common? A no-frills answer. These are blown-out-of-proportion structures found on the male counterparts within the same species and are the ‘weapons’ employed for fighting, sexual selection and territorial defence. During combat, such big and heavy-duty structures sustain lesser damages. At the same time, they can cause greater impairment to the opponents.
These differing physical traits (larger or more ornate in males) are signs of sexual dimorphism with females of the same species looking really different from their male equivalents.
Mega structures (well, mega relative to their body sizes) like a king-sized rack of antlers, an impressive set of horns and spikes work splendidly to signal and advertise ‘good genes’, simply because the animals can afford it.
Animals born to fitter parents living under better conditions with abundant food sources and safety from predators usually begin life with an edge and grow to be bigger than those striving under environment with lacklustre conditions (lack of nutrients and constant exposure to dangers and predators) or born to parents with poorer physiological conditions.
When you have access to rich sources, particularly food, the body of an animal responds accordingly to ‘create’ the big structures. This is true advertising, cannot bluff. And these ornaments happen to be what most females fancy.
Males also assess each other’s hardware and pick up on these visual cues to size each other up before deciding if they want to engage in a tussle to determine who emerge the winner. This helps to reduce unnecessary bloodshed.
Horns (living bones covered with a keratin sheath and borne by most antelopes and goats) and antlers (found on most male deer) are costly ornaments used in direct combat and signalling. Unlike horns that stay with the animals throughout their lives, male deer usually grow a new set of antlers as they enter mating season.
Growing a set of antlers is like a vampire manifesting within a deer. This process sucks up so much vital minerals like calcium and phosphorous from the skeleton to ‘create’ the antlers that the deer might experience temporary osteoporosis if they do not gain access to enough nutrients. Imagine the need to get into a fight in this physical state!
All in all, why do females get to choose? Why does it look like the males are doing all the work – from guarding its territory and ensuring a constant stream of food, getting into fights (sometime deadly) and courting the ladies? Well, most females are specialised in making eggs and carrying the embryos into the next generation.
Some animals like the cheetahs or elephants care for the young for an extended period of time until they are fully independent. The high investment by the females, from the point of egg production and conception, allows them to be choosier and more selective in finding a better and fitter mate that enhances the survival of their young.
As for the males, the chance of gaining greater access to the females by attracting or securing food source and shelter for them outweighs the cost of developing and carrying these ‘weapons’.
The next time when you notice sexual dimorphism in a species, take some time to observe and ponder over the special physical traits that the males hold. Most of the time, they are there to capture the ladies’ heart, or eye.