Peacocks are the dandies of the bird world, investing a huge amount of energy into growing their elaborate coloured tails. Now we have the first idea of just what a peahen looks for in a peacock's tail ? and for such an icon of evolutionary biology, the answer is surprisingly little.
Peacocks display their large iridescent, shimmering tails to advertise what good mates they will be. Peahens then choose from among competing peacocks, the preferred males father most offspring, and evolution trundles on. A tail can have up to 175 eyespots to try and attract females ? but are they paying any attention?
To find out, Jessica Yorzinski and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, tracked peahens' eye movements by fitting them with head cams. The results are discouraging from a male's point of view.
Even when a peacock's tail is raised, the peahens ignore him almost two-thirds of the time. When they do look at him, they focus on the bottom edge of the male's tails, ignoring the vast majority of what is on display.
"This shows just how much effort the males put into getting the females' attention," says Sue Healy of the University of St Andrews, UK, who was not involved in the work. "They think they've done it with their tails, but no wonder males constantly rustle their tails, because otherwise there would be so little attention."
What, then, is the point of the rest of the peacock's tail? "We think the upper portion is used by peahens to locate peacocks in dense vegetation," says Yorzinski. But once they're close up, the focus shifts down, she says.
Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Biology, DOI: 10.1242/jeb.087338
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