A celebration of lovers – does love last a lifetime among waterbirds?

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February 14 is a day for kisses, hugs and celebrating love with the help of flowers, balloons and chocolates. However, a keen observer of nature, following the customs of Homo sapiens, would quickly come to the conclusion that every year the holiday of lovers involves some reshuffling of partnerships. And this is by no means evidence of our weakness or wickedness – even waterfowl, which have been prized for decades for their undying fidelity, are proving to have their own definition of monogamy.

Swan song with a hint of falsity

For us, two swans facing each other with their beaks is a picture just in time for Valentine’s Day. After all, the dignified birds are famous for their lifelong fidelity and are supposed to be a model of steadfast attachment for us. However, Australian scientists have proven that the reality is not so rosy. Even one in six youngsters turns out to be the fruit of an extramarital union.

A team of Melbourne researchers led by renowned ornithologist Dr. Raoul Mulder set out to investigate how swans are ruining their worldwide reputation as monogamists. To this end, he equipped 60 male black swans from Albert Park Lake with microchips and their female partners with special decoders. Unaware of the ruse, the water birds were released into the wild, meticulously noting all copulations. It turned out that both females and males have no qualms about seeking intimate contact outside of a formal relationship. In the case of swans, however, scientists don’t blame nature’s weaknesses at all; on the contrary, they suspect an evolutionary advantage in acquiring better genes. After all, a partner who is the perfect everyday companion may not necessarily be the best father material.

Penguin love triangles

It appears that other waterbirds, widely praised for practicing monogamy, are of the same opinion. Penguins do indeed mate for better or worse – and bad ones are plentiful during Antarctic winters – but according to Emma Marks of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, fidelity tends to vary with them.

These colonial birds come to their permanent breeding areas every year to find a life partner and once again try to expand their family. This is not an easy task, because among emperor penguins, only 50 percent. young live to the end of the breeding season, and of those that survive, only half live to see their first birthday. Not surprisingly, the male penguin prepares the nest as quickly as possible, waiting for his wife to return. Sometimes, however, another female will appear earlier, and the impatient father-to-be will cuddle her to his warm breast. When the rightful mistress of the house finally arrives, battles worthy of a soap opera begin.

There are sometimes more similar intrigues in the penguin season for love, and as a result, few males can be sure that the egg they will bravely defend from the frigid gale of the south actually hides their offspring. And getting off is difficult and thankless and requires the cooperation of both parents. If it didn’t work out and the offspring didn’t survive the trial period, the penguins would more than likely decide to divorce and try their luck in another configuration the following year.

A celebration of lovers
A celebration of lovers - does love last a lifetime among waterbirds? 1

Waterbirds redefine monogamy

Penguin love customs, however, vary considerably from species to species. While only 15 percent. Emperor penguins maintain fidelity to their partners, among equatorial penguins loyalty reaches a staggering 89 percent. Various life conditions and turns of fate, which include. plowing, storms, and more recently, climate change, can have a significant impact on approaches to monogamy. Here it is worth noting that waterbirds very often recognize social monogamy, which means that they are most happy to spend time together fishing or raising offspring. For freedom in sexual contact, however, they retain a backdoor, which scientists usually explain by the need for females to seek out the best paternal genes and for males to increase their overall breeding success.

Studies supported by DNA analysis show that 90 percent of all bird species adhere to the principle of social monogamy, but true partner exclusivity is a very rare phenomenon. Some scientists even suggest that de facto monogamy has evolved only in terrestrial species, for which being in a stable relationship ensures greater reproductive success than promiscuity.

However, don’t let the clash between imagination and reality spoil your plans and give your loved one a valentine, even if it depicts a pair of swans.

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