For peacocks, the eyespots don't lie

Apr 27, 2011
Roz Dakin, a doctoral candidate in Queen's University Department of Biology, has four years of fieldwork experience examining peacocks' iridescent coloring and courtship behaviors. Credit: Queen's University

Male peacock tail plumage and courtship antics likely influence their success at attracting and mating with females, according to recent Queen's University research.

Roz Dakin and Robert Montgomerie have found that in the number of eyespots on a peacock's tail does not impact a male's mating success. However, peacocks whose tails are clipped to considerably reduce the number of eyespots are less successful at mating.

Female rejection of with substantially fewer eyespots on their tails may have a number of explanations, including the perceived maturity of the male, the overall size of his tail, or even a female's concerns about the health of her potential mate.

"Females may reject a few males with substantially reduced eyespot number, while using some other cues to choose among males with typical tails," explains Ms Dakin, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology who has four years of fieldwork experience examining the birds' iridescent colouration. "It seems likely that other characteristics of the tail's colours and patterns are critical for peafowl mate choice."

Ms Dakin and Dr. Montgomerie, a professor in the Department of Biology at Queen's, ultimately want to know what females are thinking during courtship, a difficult objective given the various factors at play. They are examining peahens' movements, behaviours, and visits to males within the context of males' colouration and where the males position themselves geographically.

"Courtship and in these animals is undoubtedly very complex," says Ms Dakin. "There are numerous factors to consider, including their colourful bodies and the feather displays on their heads. Males also call to and engage in energetic displays. Males even seem to selectively position themselves in sunlight to make the most of their beautiful colours."

This research was published recently in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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DavidMcC
not rated yet Apr 28, 2011
Fascinating animals! I wondered several years ago, whether the Asian and green peafowl aren't more closely related to the geographically close Himalayan monal than to the supposed ancestral African peafowl.
A bit of geoology:
The Indian plate collided with the Asian plate at least 50 million years ago, leaving plenty of time for an ancestral pheasant-family bird polulation (which had unwittingly
hitched a ride on the "slow boat to Asia") to adapt to several new environments created by the joining of land-masses and the formation of the Himalayas.
If a population of monal-like birds was forced to make forays into the dangerous, cat-infested forests further down the mountain slopes, to find enough food.
The amazing eyespots would then have been the product of natural selection acting with sexual selection, by confusing the African leopard, a forest predator that was once common
in Asia, and which is deterred by monkeys that gather and stare at it.
DavidMcC
not rated yet Apr 28, 2011
... Hence the psuedo-tail would be the peacock's own "band of monkeys". The eye-spots even have monkey's eyelids on them, using a colour from the monal, which has essentially the same colour scheme, but with a different distribution of the colours. A further significant detail is that the leopard may see "eyes", but the peahens would not, because of their greater range of colour vision, causing UV to hide the eye-like pattern. Thus, the peahens aren't scared off by the apparent sight of monkeys gate-crashing the party!
In terms of behaviour, I have wondered (on the basis of this hypothesis), whether a peacock, when startled by the sight of
big cat's eyes, might not instinctively display its "tail" in a manner normally reserved for the peahens, as a desperate attempt to confuse the predator.
DavidMcC
not rated yet May 02, 2011
The implication of all this (if true) is that, in the absence of eye-spots, the peahen would rely on the fall-back position of the ancestral attractant (the rest of the irridescence, ie the neck). After all, if natural selection has somehow retained that part of the original attractant in spite of the tough conditions of the forest floor, they would surely use it.