Sex and the single elephant

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Birds do it, bees do it. And now a museum famous for its fleas is doing it.

The natural history museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, best-known for its display of fleas in traditional Mexican costume, is launching an exhibition on what it coyly refers to as courting habits. The Mating Display examines the different rituals used by various animals in their search for the perfect partner.

Paul Kitching, exhibition officer, believes humans can learn a lot from observing wooing wildlife. "Quite often, these rituals are referred to as bizarre," he said. "But they are perfectly adapted to attract and entice a mate. "The more examples people see, the more ideas they can take for their own mating rituals."

Discerning animals know the best way to impress is to spend time and effort on appearance. The dominant male mandrill, a type of baboon, develops prominent red-and-blue markings on its backside, which prove irresistible to females.

The male tern, however, knows that no woman can resist a well-chosen gift.

He brings the female a small fish, to demonstrate his ability to provide for her. In a shining example to males of other species, he continues to bring the gifts long after the female has accepted his advances.

But the Bridget Jones singleton is a feature of any society. Elephants have a dating record to make even Bridget's heart sink: they have only one brief fling every five years, when the female is fertile for two to four days.

"These behaviours are no more weird than our own mating rituals," said Mr Kitching. "Humans wear scents and feathers as well. Getting dressed up in your best outfit and going to the local nightclub is just an extension of the same thing, really."

One of the interactive displays illustrating mating rituals projects the sound of a bellowing moose, while another contains the scent of jaguar urine. Visitors are also invited to try out mating dances in front of a large mirror.

Eleven-year-old Rozalyn Honeycombe has noticed similarities with behaviour at Bishop Wood primary, in Tring. "Birds puff themselves up, to make them look bigger," she said.

"At our school disco, people show off in front of other people. And the moose makes a loud moaning sound. The boys at my school make a lot of noise all the time."

The Mating Game runs until November 27. www.nhm.ac.uktring

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