Why the Buff-Breasted Sandpiper Blushes at Beautiful Armpits

From elaborate dancing displays to incredibly attractive armpits, the animal kingdom is full of colorful ways for males to woo mates.
  • Transcript


Question: In your opinion, what is the most fascinating mating ritual in the animal kingdom?
Laurie Santos: The animal kingdom is full of amazing, amazing behaviors.  Typically in which males are trying to attract females.  So, most of the time in the animal kingdom, females are the ones who tend to be very choosy.  So they pick between different males based on their attributes, in part because males typically don't donate much other than their good sperm and their good genes.  So, females tend to care a lot about how good a male looks, how awesome his song his, how great his dance is, and so on.  And this leads to a pressure for males to kind of ratchet it up and sort of have a bit of an arms race in terms of how awesome their dance is and their song is and so on. 
Some of my favorite examples of males ratcheting it up, are cases of... there’s a species known as the Buff-Breasted Sandpiper.  It’s this otherwise kind of drab-looking brown Arctic bird.  It’s drab looking because it lives in the Arctic, very hard to get food and do everything.  But it kind of allows for its beauty to come out in really strange ways.  And one of these ways is that it has incredibly attractive armpit. So, it’s armpit is very white, very clean and it will do flash displays for females where males will kind of get out in a field and kind of flash its armpit and if the females like the armpit, they can fly from miles and miles and then they’ll do this kind of wonderful armpit display and the females, you know, fall for it; they think this is wonderful.  But you can tell, you know, kind of which males have the sexy armpits by which ones are flashing and all the females are all "Ahhh!" And so on. 
They also, other species in which males do incredible dances to woo females, there’s this species of bird known as the manikin in which the males actually do a really elaborate dancing display that actually involves two partners.  So there’s a kind of senior male who gets to mate with the females and another male who apprentices with him and has to learn the dance.  And the female picks on the dance of both of them even though the senior guy gets the girl.  But then eventually then the apprentice will kind of inherit the dancing court and then get the lady.

Recorded May 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont