All biologist Chadden Hunter wants to know is what “the girls” are after. “Would you go for his golden mane? His nice pink chest patch? Would it be how attentive he is, how much he grooms you, how much he looks after the kids?” he asks. Hunter is an expert on geladas, the grass-eating primates he studies on the Ethiopian highlands.
In “What Females Want and Males Will Do,” a two-part installment of PBS’s Nature, Hunter helps show that much of the come-hither activity going on in the animal world is beyond us. A chest-puffing male sage grouse looks impressive, but what actually matters to his mates is a whistle humans can barely hear. Moths chase single molecules of seemingly scentless pheromones, and a male satyrid butterfly woos with the invisible (to us) ultraviolet on his eyespot.
Once a male attracts a female, can he keep her? “Genetic testing has put the lie to the myth of monogamy,” says narrator F. Murray Abraham. Ninety-nine percent of mammal species never form lasting pair-bonds, and those that do continue to bear illegitimate offspring—as many as 80 percent of them, in the case of the “monogamous” red fox. The reason is probably that with every copulation, a female increases the chances that she is getting access to the best genes. This exuberant Nature special says that lots of sex is good for her and for her offspring, too.