Birds cultivate decorative plants to attract mates

Apr 23, 2012
An international team of scientists has uncovered the first evidence of a non-human species cultivating plants for use other than as food. Instead, bowerbirds propagate fruits used as decorations in their sexual displays. Credit: University of Exeter

An international team of scientists has uncovered the first evidence of a non-human species cultivating plants for use other than as food. Instead, bowerbirds propagate fruits used as decorations in their sexual displays. The researchers discovered male bowerbirds had unusually high numbers of fruit-bearing plants growing around their bowers, and used these fruits in order to attract females.

Published today, in the research was carried out by the Universities of Exeter (UK), Postdam (Germany), Deakin and Queensland (Australia).

This is the first time a species other than humans has been found to cultivate non-food . However, the scientists do not believe the are intentionally cultivating the plants: it is more likely that they are growing around their bowers as a result of the birds gathering fruits for display.

An international team of scientists has uncovered the first evidence of a non-human species cultivating plants for use other than as food. Instead, bowerbirds propagate fruits used as decorations in their sexual displays. Credit: University of Exeter

Native to Australia and , bowerbirds are well known for their unique behaviour, which involves males building ornate bowers. Males gather brightly-coloured objects to decorate their bowers, in order to attract females.

The research team observed bowerbirds in Taunton National Park, Central Queensland. They found higher numbers of Solanum ellipticum, or potato bush, plants around bowers than in other locations. These plants have bright purple flowers and green fruit. Their research showed that the birds were not selecting locations with a high number of the plants, but rather that they were growing plants around their bowers.

Bowers with many fruit on them are especially attractive to choosy females. Males collect the fruits, but when the fruits shrivel, they discard them nearby. This results in seeds germinating in the ground around the bower. Bowerbirds clear the area around their bower of grass and , making ideal conditions for new plants to germinate. Male bowerbirds can maintain a bower in the same location for up to ten years, so will benefit from establishing plants that may survive for several years.

An international team of scientists has uncovered the first evidence of a non-human species cultivating plants for use other than as food. Instead, bowerbirds propagate fruits used as decorations in their sexual displays. Credit: University of Exeter

The researchers found that, like farmers selecting for fatter pigs or larger seeds, the bird's behaviour may lead to a change in the appearance of fruits. The fruits from plants close to the bowers were slightly greener in colour than those found on other plants. The researchers tested the males' choices and found they preferred this colour to that of the other .

Lead researcher Dr Joah Madden said: "Until now, humans have been the only species known to cultivate plants for uses other than food. We grow plants for all kinds of things – from drugs, to clothing, to props that we use in our sexual displays such as roses – but it seems we are not unique in this respect.

"We do not believe bowerbirds are intentionally growing these plants, but this accumulation of preferred objects close to a site of habitation is arguably the way any cultivation begins. It will be very interesting to see how this mutually-beneficial relationship between bowerbirds and these plants develops."

Explore further: Transparent larvae hide opaque eyes behind reflections

Related Stories

Stress may explain vocal mimicry in Bowerbirds

May 11, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Spotted Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus maculatus) are best known for their nests, but these birds are also capable of mimicking the vocalizations of many different species of birds. It was be ...

Grafted watermelon plants take in more pesticides

Jan 25, 2012

The widely used farm practice of grafting watermelon and other melon plants onto squash or pumpkin rootstocks results in larger amounts of certain pesticides in the melon fruit, scientists are reporting in a new study. Although ...

New strawberry a delight for gardeners

Jul 01, 2011

A new, versatile strawberry has been introduced for home gardeners. 'Roseberry' is predicted to be very popular as an ornamental addition to gardens. The strawberry features attractive pink blooms and produces ...

In birds, masters of illusion are lucky in love

Jan 19, 2012

Many male birds use their flashy colored feathers to lure females, but the great bowerbird of Australia has mastered the art of illusion to captivate the ladies, researchers said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Dogs can be pessimists too

13 minutes ago

Dogs generally seem to be cheerful, happy-go-lucky characters, so you might expect that most would have an optimistic outlook on life.

Transparent larvae hide opaque eyes behind reflections

13 hours ago

Becoming invisible is probably the ultimate form of camouflage: you don't just blend in, the background shows through you. And this strategy is not as uncommon as you might think. Kathryn Feller, from the University of Maryland ...

Peacock's train is not such a drag

14 hours ago

The magnificent plumage of the peacock may not be quite the sacrifice to love that it appears to be, University of Leeds researchers have discovered.

Spy on penguin families for science

22 hours ago

Penguin Watch, which launches on 17 September 2014, is a project led by Oxford University scientists that gives citizen scientists access to around 200,000 images of penguins taken by remote cameras monitoring ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Telekinetic
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
A heart-shaped box of chocolate-covered worms would also do the trick.