The pufferfish’s wonderful nest

Maker simply digs ditches, following a few rules

White-spotted pufferfish creates wonderful nest by digging ditchesThousands of times the white-spotted pufferfish male digs a rectilinear ditch in the sand, following simple rules. Ryo Mizuuchi and colleagues explain how this process results in a huge and beautiful sand structure.

Geometrical nest of white-spotted pufferfishIn 1995, divers detected a circular structure with a nice regular pattern on the sandy bottom of the subtropical sea around the southern islands of Japan; its diameter was no less than two meters. Shortly after, more of these structures were found. People were wonder-struck. How did these mystery circles emerge?

The answer was just as surprising as the find itself: the builder turned out to be the male of an unknown pufferfish, an inconspicuous animal only ten centimetres long. It was named Torquigener albomaculosus, white-spotted pufferfish. The large structure is its nest. It consists of an inner circle filled with fine sand particles, surrounded by an outer ring with 25 to 30 radially arranged ditches and ridges; half way, the ring is flattened and the ditches are a bit wider.


Hiroshi Kawase and colleagues described how the pufferfish creates this impressive structure, which takes seven to nine days to complete. First, it makes dozens of irregular depressions in the sand, probably to demarcate its building site. On the second day, a basic circular shape begins to emerge, with a flat inner circle and a vague pattern of ditches and ridges. The animal digs the ditches by swimming over the bottom and stirring up sand with its body and fins. The next few days, the inner circle grows and the pattern of ditches and ridges becomes increasingly clear. Moved by the fish’s bustle, the finest sand particles are deposited on the bottom of the ditches and then flow into the inner circle.

Eventually, the pufferfish creates an irregular pattern in the inner circle by flapping its anal fin on the bottom. On the ridges, it deposits some pieces of shell and coral for decoration. And then it is ready to receive females – because that is what it is all about.


When a female shows up outside the ring, he invites her to enter the circle by stirring up a lot of fine sand particles. She likes that, because she prefers to lay her eggs on fine sand. When she is inside the nest, a game of approaching starts. He repeatedly rushes to her and retreats, she sometimes pretends to leave. Eventually she goes down to lay eggs, and while he bites her behind her mouth, he fertilises them with his sperm. They spawn repeatedly. Then she leaves, perhaps to come back again. On this day, the male will receive several females in his nest.

Then a new period starts: the care for the eggs is his task. He flaps his fins, keeps the eggs free from debris, and chases away fishes that come close to the nest. He now does not care about maintaining the structure anymore, so that the pattern fades and the gathered fine sand particles disperse. When the larvae are about to hatch after six days, he flaps his fins at a higher frequency. If the male starts a new breeding cycle, he will make a new nest instead of repairing the old one.


The question remains as to how this pufferfish is able to accurately construct a large structure with such geometric design. It mainly stays near the bottom and therefore it has no overview.

It doesn’t need to, as Ryo Mizuuchi and colleagues now show. The structure emerges because the fish repeats a simple behaviour – digging a ditch – thousands of times, applying a few simple rules.

The researchers derived those rules from their observations. They saw how the male marks the centre of the circle by pressing its belly on the ground. Then it repeatedly digs a rectilinear ditch. Initially, the ditches have a random orientation, but later they are more and more directed to the centre of the area. To dig the ditches in the ring, the male always swims from the outside to the inside. The pattern is becoming clearer because it always starts at a low position, where a ditch is already visible. It also digs in the inner circle, but mostly from the inside out; that is probably to demarcate the circle.

When the researchers simulated the building process on the computer following these rules, the ring structure with ditches and ridges did emerge. They also discovered that the thicker or stronger the male is, the wider its ditches are. It is possible that females assess ditch width to select a suitable male, next to the amount of sand he is stirring up. The research on this fish is not finished yet.

Willy van Strien

Photos: Hiroshi Kawase (via Flickr, Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0)

A BBC-video shows how the pufferfish male builds its wonderful nest

Mizuuchi, R., H. Kawase, H. Shin, D. Iwai & S. Kondo, 2018. Simple rules for construction of a geometric nest structure by pufferfish. Scientific Reports 8: 12366. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-30857-0
Kawase, H., R. Mizuuchi, H. Shin, Y. Kitajima, K. Hosoda, M. Shimizu, D. Iwai & S. Kondo, 2017. Discovery of an earliest-stage “mystery circle” and development of the structure constructed by pufferfish, Torquigener albomaculosus (Pisces: Tetraodontidae). Fishes 2: 14. Doi: 10.3390/fishes2030014
Kawase, H., Y. Okata, K. Ito & A. Ida, 2015. Spawning behavior and paternal egg care in a circular structure constructed by pufferfish, Torquigener albomaculosus (Pisces: Tetraodontidae). Bulletin of Marine Science 91: 33-43. Doi: 10.5343/bms.2014.1055
Kawase, H., Y. Okata & K. Ito, 2013. Role of huge geometric circular structures in the reproduction of a marine pufferfish. Scientific Reports 3 : 2106. Doi: 10.1038/srep02106

Gruesome boost

Damaged cicadas spread fungal spores via sexual behaviour

Magicicada species are manipulated by the fungus Massospora

Massospora fungi produce substances that we know as recreational drugs, Greg Boyce and colleagues write. By doing so, they manipulate the behaviour of cicadas in which they proliferate. The insects face a horrible fate.

The fungus Massospora cicadina infects periodical cicadas of the genus Magicicada and manipulates the behaviour of infested insects in such a way that they will transmit the fungal spores to conspecifics. Horribly enough, they do so by sexual activities, while their rear part has already been largely destroyed and turned into a fungal mass. Greg Boyce and colleagues try to find out how the fungus exerts its dismal influence.

Magicicada species, which live in the east of North America, are almost never to be seen. They spend most of their life underground as nymphs, the immature form. Only once in many years – some species take thirteen years, other species take seventeen years – mature nymphs emerge from the soil, synchronously and massively per species and per area. They moult into mature cicadas that live only for four to six weeks. In this period, they mate and the females lay their eggs on tree branches. Young nymphs fall down and disappear in the soil.

This unusual life cycle makes it very difficult for natural enemies such as birds to specialize on adult cicadas, because they would not be able to find prey for many years while occasionally, once in thirteen or seventeen years, there is an overwhelming amount.

But the fungus Massospora cicadina can deal with the life cycle of these cicadas.

Copulation attempts

Fungal spores rest in the soil until nymphs emerge and then infect them. After moult, the fungus proliferates in the abdomen of adult insects. Eventually, their rear part, genitals included, falls off and a fungal spore mass becomes visible.

The heavily damaged cicadas try to mate, even more vigorously than normal. Of course, this is useless to them, but the fungus benefits: during the copulation attempts, the unfortunate cicadas transmit spores to conspecifics.

In these insects, the fungus forms a second infection stage. Because now time runs out for the adult cicadas, a third infection is not feasible. Therefore, instead of infective spores, the fungus produces resting spores, which fall down and wait in the soil until the next generation of cicadas appears.

Bisexual males

Earlier this year, John Cooley and colleagues described deviant behaviour in males with a first stage infection. Normally, males sing in chorus to lure females. When a female shows interest in a male, she makes a flicking wing movement that is tuned to his song. He then utters more complex song, she answers with a tightly timed wing-flick, and a ‘duet’ is created while the two approach each other.

First stage infected males try to acquire a female mate in the normal way. But they also respond to the song of other males with female-like wing-flicks. As a result, not only females, but also males are attracted – and become infected. The fungal infection spreads extra fast.

It is striking that only males with a first stage infection assume a female role besides a male role. Males with a second stage infection, which does not produce infective spores, don’t exhibit wing-flicks.

Stimulating drug

Now, Greg Boyce shows how the fungus manages to affect the behaviour of the cicadas. Among the substances that it produces in the cicadas’ abdomen is cathinone. This is known as the active substance in khat, which is released when chewing leaves of the Khat plant, Catha edulis. It is surprising that a plant and a fungus share this substance. Cathinone is closely related to amphetamine, or speed, a stimulating drug, and just like the drug, it interferes with the communication between nerve cells. Apparently, this results in abnormal behaviour in male cicadas.

In a first stage infection, in which the cicadas transmit the fungus spores to conspecifics, the fungus produces more of this stimulating substance than in a second stage infection, which shows how accurately it manipulates its host.

Another Massospora fungal species, which infects cicadas with an annual cycle (Platypedia species), also manipulates the sexual behaviour of its victims, Boyce and colleagues discovered. It produces psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance known from certain mushrooms, most importantly Psilocybe species. Again a remarkable finding, as the fungus is not closely related to these mushroom species.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Magicicada septendecim. Judy Gallagher( Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Boyce, G.R., E. Gluck-Thaler, J.C. Slot, J.E. Stajich, W.J. Davis, T.Y. James, J.R. Cooley, D.G. Panaccione, J. Eilenberg, H.H. De Fine Licht, A.M. Macias, M.C. Berger, K.L. Wickert, C.M. Stauder, E.J. Spahr, M.D. Maust, A.M. Metheny, C. Simon, G. Kritsky, K.T. Hodge, R.A. Humber, T. Gullion, D.P.G. Short, T. Kijimoto, D. Mozgai, N. Arguedas & M.T. Kasson, 2018. Discovery of psychoactive plant and mushroom alkaloids in ancient fungal cicada pathogens. BioRxiv preprint, July 24. Doi: 10.1101/375105
Cooley, J.R., D.C. Marshall & K.B.R. Hill, 2018. A specialized fungal parasite (Massospora cicadina) hijacks the sexual signals of periodical cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadidae: Magicicada). Scientific Reports 8: 1432. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-19813-0
Cooley, J.R. & D.C. Marshall, 2001. Sexual signaling in periodical cicadas, Magicicada spp. (Hemiptera: Cicadidae). Behaviour 138, 827-855. Doi: 10.1163/156853901753172674

Flamingos use cosmetics

Females apply more colourful make-up than males

Flamingos prefer colourful mates

To catch the attention of possible mates, flamingos use make-up. They produce a colourful oil which they apply over the feathers to reinforce their colour, signalling their quality. For females this is more important than for males, Juan Amat and colleagues write.

Flamingos, both males and females, are keen to find the best mate they can get. Mate selection is a cumbersome process. Months before breeding, the birds join large mixed groups to see each other and to be seen. They exhibit their plumage with outstretched necks and stuffed feathers. And when they selected a mate, the game is not finished yet. They stay alert, and if possible they exchange their mate for a better one. Mutual assessment and selection continue until they actually start breeding.

It is important to stand out with a beautiful pink plumage in such displaying group, because a colourful bird is preferred and will quickly acquire an equally attractive partner. Together they can occupy a good nesting place in the breeding colony, enjoying an advantage over less popular birds.

A beautiful colour is attractive for good reason. The feather colour arises during moult at the end of the summer, when the birds incorporate pigments (carotenoids) that they ingested with their food into their feathers. A beautiful colour is proof that the bird has been successful in obtaining food. It can afford to incorporate the pigments into the feathers, which means that it is not under pressure, because in that case it would have to use the pigments to prevent cell damage caused by stress. The substances are antioxidants, which eliminate harmful oxygen radicals that arise during stress. In short, a bird that has beautiful a colour after moult is healthy and in good condition.

However, a long time passes by between the periods of moult and mate choice during which the original colour fades, and in this time the condition of a bird may either improve or deteriorate. The original feather colour is no good indicator of condition during display. How is it possible to make a good choice?


There is a solution to this problem. The birds are able to reinforce the colour of their feathers, Juan Amat and colleagues showed in 2011; the team studies a large colony of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) that breeds on islands and dikes in the salty South Spanish lagoon Fuente de Piedra, a nature reserve.

Flamingos produce a preen oil in the uropygial gland with pigments that were ingested with their food. They apply the preen oil over the feathers by rubbing their cheeks first on the gland and then along neck, chest and back, using the oil as cosmetics. The feather colour now is an up-to-date indicator of health and condition, because only strong birds find sufficient food to obtain pigments and can use them to tinge their plumage. They also have the time to reinforce the colour of their feathers frequently, which is necessary as the applied pigments quickly bleach.

Amat showed that the more time the birds spend rubbing, the deeper pink the colour of their plumage is. They produce preen oil with highest pigment concentrations in the period of display, when they use their make-up extensively and are most colourful. Once they have started breeding – each pair produces one young -, they stop maintenance behaviour of plumage and the colours fade. The parents stay together until their young is independent, after about three months. They then split up – and in October the long-lasting game of display and mate choice starts again.


Now, Amat shows that on average females are more colourful than males. They exhibit the same rubbing behaviour, but their uropygial gland contains pigments in higher concentrations. Apparently, it is more important for females to signal their quality.

As the researchers explain, the care for the young is more demanding for the mothers than it is for the fathers. The wetlands where the birds forage are no less than 150 to 400 kilometres away from the breeding colony. So, provisioning the chicks is quite an effort. The female makes the trip more frequently than the male and as she is smaller, the journey is heavier for her. That is why, during pair formation, she has to convince males beforehand that she can handle this task by showing a beautiful pink colour.

After the chick hatched, the female’s colour fades faster than that of her mate because now she is under more pressure and needs the pigments to combat stress damage. She doesn’t need to be attractive anymore – until the next display period starts.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Bernard Dupont (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Watch flamingos parading their plumage

Amat, J.A., A. Garrido, F. Portavia, M. Rendón-Martos, A. Pérez-Gálvez, J. Garrido-Fernández, J. Gómez, A. Béchet & M.A. Rendón, 2018. Dynamic signalling using cosmetics may explain the reversed sexual dichromatism in the monogamous greater flamingo. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 72: 135. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-018-2551-1
Amat, J.A., M.A. Rendón, J. Garrido-Fernández, A. Garrido, M. Rendón-Martos & A. Pérez-Gálvez, 2011. Greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus use uropygial secretions as make-up. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 65: 665-673. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-010-1068-z

Males in transition

Squid male changes its mating tactic when growing larger

Males in the squid Doryteuthis pleii adopt alternative mating tactics, depending on their age

When becoming sexually active, male squids are little successful at first. Only later they perform better, increasing their chances to sire offspring. This development includes major changes, Lígia Apostólico and José Marian discovered.

In squid like Doryteuthis pleii, a species living off the coast of Brazil, small males are able to mate, but they have to do it at an inappropriate time and in a little successful way, as sneakers. Large males act much more effectively as real partners or consorts, as Lígia Apostólico and José Marian report.

Shooting mechanism

When squid mate, s male delivers sperm packages to a female. With a special arm, a male takes the packages, spermatophores, from the spermatophoric sac, where they are produced, and places them on the body of a female with a rapid movement. Then he is done, the sperm packages themselves will do the rest of the work. With a shooting mechanism (ejaculatory apparatus), a package turns inside out, and when evaginated, it attaches onto the female’s body and the sperm cells swim out.

A large male delivers its sperm packages neatly. He approaches a female that is about to release her eggs, places himself next to her with his head pointing in the same direction as hers, moves his special arm behind her head under the mantle that surrounds her body and places his spermatophores near the opening of the oviduct from which the eggs will be released in capsules. The sperm cells have immediate access to the eggs. The male guards the female and tries to keep rivals at bay with flickering colour patterns, because if another male also mates with her, his sperm will have to compete with that other male’s sperm.


A small man does not stand a chance against a large one, so he can only mate at a less exciting time, when no eggs are to be released soon. He doesn’t put his arm under the female’s mantle, but he assumes a head-to-head position and places his sperm packages under her beak, that is between the arms. When she releases the eggs, she holds the capsules for a while near the beak before depositing them on the substrate, and then a sneaker’s sperm cells have a chance – as far as the eggs are not fertilized already by a consort’s sperm.

The sperm cells of sneakers are adapted to the unfortunate site where they are placed and the wide time interval between mating and fertilization chances, and their spermatophores differ from those of consorts. Sneakers have smaller and thinner spermatophores; after evagination, they are short and club-like shaped. The sperm cells come out slowly and aggregate at the exit, having nothing to do there for the time being. The spermatophores of consorts, in contrast, are larger and after evagination, they are long and hook-like shaped. The sperm is quickly discharged in a powerful flow and sperm cells immediately diffuse, so the eggs that are released will pass through a cloud of them.

Now in Doryteuthis pleii, Apostólico and Marian found some males, intermediate in size between sneaker and consort (about 17 centimetres mantle length), that produce sneaker-like spermatophores as well as consort-like spermatophores, and often also an intermediate form. The sneaker-like packages are oldest and stay in the anterior part of the spermatophoric sac, the consort packages are youngest and reside in the posterior part, and the intermediate packages are to be found in between.

Fast switch

This indicates that a male starts as a sneaker and, if he exceeds a certain size limit, he will go on as a consort, implementing all changes that are required by the transition. Age estimates show that sneakers are indeed younger than consorts; the estimates are based on the size of small particles in the organs that enable the animals to control their position and balance; every day these particles, statoliths, increase a little in size. The switch from sneaker to consort must take place very fast, as only few males are found that are in transition.

So, during their lives, which lasts less than a year, the males go through a major development. They are small when at summer the mating season starts, but still they mature sexually, so that they can begin to reproduce – although for the time being only as little successful sneakers.

But perhaps not all males follow that path, Apostólico and Marian think. Males that were born early, in late summer or autumn, have much time before the mating season starts. They can grow to a large size before they become sexually active, and then they can be consorts from the start.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Alvaro E. Migotto (Cifonauta. Creative Commons CC BY-NC SA 3.0)

Apostólico, L.H. & J.E.A.R. Marian, 2018. From sneaky to bully: reappraisal of male squid dimorphism indicates ontogenetic mating tactics and striking ejaculate transition. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 123: 603-614. Doi: 10.1093/biolinnean/bly006
Apostólico, L.H. & J.E.A.R. Marian, 2018. Dimorphic male squid show differential gonadal and ejaculate expenditure. Hydrobiologia 808: 5-22. Doi: 10.1007/s1075
Apostólico, L.H. &  J.E.A.R. Marian, 2017. Dimorphic ejaculates and sperm release strategies associated with alternative mating behaviors in the squid. Journal of Morphology. 278: 1490-1505. Doi: 10.1002/jmor.20726

Blacker than black

Almost no light escapes from of bird of paradise feathers

many birds of paradise have velvety super black feathers

Many birds of paradise have beautiful colours, the brightness of which partly is an illusion, created by dark feathers that surround coloured patches. These feathers are not normal black, but velvety super black, as Dakota McCoy and colleagues show.

Birds of paradise, which mainly occur in New Guinea, deserve their name. The bird family includes many species in which the males have brilliant colours, wear exuberant plumage ornaments and perform exciting dances. With their spectacular appearance, they try to seduce females.

Black feathers play an important role in their courtship, Dakota McCoy and colleagues write. The black feathers that these birds display are not normal black, but super black: they absorb almost all light – more than 99.5 percent – that falls on it. Against this velvety super black background, blue and yellow colours seem brighter than they really are; it looks as if the colours were luminescent. Such super black material is extremely rare in nature.

Ragged, curled edges

The researchers show that the deep black appearance is brought about by the special surface structure of the smallest components of the feathers. A feather consists of a shaft on which barbs are implanted, and the barbs are densely packed with barbules. Normally, these barbules are smooth and just bear hooks that interlock to make the feather stiff. The black feathers of crows and ravens have such normal barbules, as do the black feathers of birds of paradise that play no role in their show, such as back feathers.

But the barbules of super black feathers are highly modified. They have very ragged, curled edges with which deep, curved cavities in between, and this structure retains almost all light that falls on it. A normal black surface absorbs 95 to 97 percent of the incident light and reflects the remaining 3 to 5 percent. But in the micro jungle of spikes and cavities of super-black feathers, the light hits obstacles that scatter it again and again, and each time part of the light is transmitted into the material, where it is absorbed. Ultimately, less than half a percent of the incident light is reflected, so the feathers look super black for someone who faces the male – for instance a choosy female.

Photo: Victoria’s riflebid, Ptiloris victoriae, courting male. Francesco Veronesi (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Watch paradise birds in a video of BBC Earth, and another one of BBC Earth, and one of Cornell University featuring the magnificent riflebird.

McCoy, D.E., T. Feo, T.A. Harvey & R.O. Prum, 2018. Structural absorption by barbule microstructures of super black bird of paradise feathers. Nature Communications 9:1. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02088-w

Disarmed, but not impotent

Disabled cactus bug produces more sperm

male Narnia femorata that dropped a leg grows larger testes

With their enlarged hind legs, male cactus bugs fight with each other to defend a territory or to achieve access to a female. What will become of a male that lost one of those weapons, Paul Joseph and colleagues wondered.

The leaf-footed cactus bug Narnia femorata can drop (autotomize) a leg when this leg is grasped by a predator, entrapped or damaged. Thanks to such self-amputation the bug survives the incident, but from now on it has only five legs left to stand on and to walk on; a leg that is lost is not regenerated. For a male, it is extra annoying if it has to sacrifice one of its two hind legs, because it uses them to fight with other males for the possession of a territory or the access to a female. However, if it loses a hind leg before it is fully grown, it can compensate for it, write Paul Joseph and colleagues.

cactus bug narnia femorata preferably feeds on cactus fruitsIn the southwest of the United States, Mexico and parts of Central America, the bugs live on cacti, for instance on the prickly pear cactus Opuntia mesacantha. They feed on the plants, preferably on the ripe fruits, and females lay their eggs on them, selecting parts with ripe fruits.

Fierce fight

Males try to defend a territory on a cactus. If an intruder shows up, both males position themselves rear to rear to display, kick and wrestle with their hind legs until one of them gives up. In the presence of a female – when there is a lot at stake – the fight is fiercer, and the male with the largest hind legs will be the winner. The hind legs of males are real weapons, they are enlarged and serrated.

A male that loses one of its hind legs is in problems. It cannot defeat an intact rival and the chance that it will mate a female has decreased considerably. But it may compensate for its disability, Joseph hypothesized, by growing larger testes. This would be possible if the leg is lost before the male is full-grown; bugs don’t go through a complete metamorphosis with a pupal stage, but they grow gradually.

In order to find out whether juvenile males grow larger testes after losing a hind leg, Joseph experimentally induced juvenile bugs to drop a leg by grasping the leg with a pair of forceps and tickling with a small paintbrush, mimicking what can happen in the wild. As expected, after such treatment the testes grew extra large, while everything else developed as it normally does.

More sperm

And is it useful to have enlarged testes? The researchers paired disabled and untreated males each with a female for 24 hours. Afterwards, they counted how many eggs the females laid and how many of them hatched, meaning that they had been fertilized. They noticed that most females produced about twenty eggs, independent of whether or not they had mated. Clutches of females that had been paired with an untreated male were more likely to contain eggs that hatched than clutches of females with a disabled partner. Apparently, males that dropped a hind leg less often succeeded in mating.

But if disarmed males managed to mate, they fertilized a larger proportion of the eggs. Their enlarged testes produced more sperm, and so they sired more offspring than intact males.

In conclusion, males can compensate for the loss of a weapon by investing more in testes growth – but only if they lose it when still young. Otherwise, it is just bad luck.

Willy van Strien

Large: leaf-footed cactus bug Narnia femorata; male that dropped a hind leg. ©Christine Miller
Small: leaf-footed cactus bug male on cactus fruit. Cotinis (via Flickr; Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Joseph, P.N., Z. Emberts, D.A. Sasson & C.W. Miller, 2017. Males that drop a sexually selected weapon grow larger testes. Evolution, 20 november online. Doi: 10.1111/evo.13387
Procter, D.S., A.J. Moore & C.W. Miller, 2012. The form of sexual selection arising from male-male competition depends on the presence of females in the social environment. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 25: 803–812. Doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2012.02485.x


Palm cockatoo drums with self-fashioned drumstick

Palm cockatoo makes a drumstick

With a female listening, palm cockatoo males may repeatedly strike a hollow branch or trunk with a stick. Robert Heinsohn and colleagues heard that the birds have good rhythm and that every male has his individual drumming style.

A palm cockatoo male from North Australia can produce different sounds while erecting its crest. That is impressive, but there is something that really stands out: it may start drumming.

Regular pulse

When a male is going to perform, it breaks off a twig, removes the leaves, trims it to approximately 20 centimetres, grasps it in one of both foots and starts beating repeatedly on a hollow branch or trunk. Instead of a stick, it may use a seed pod of a particular tree (Grevillea glauca, the bushman’s clothes peg) after adjusting the shape with its beak. It may continue drumming for a while, producing a sequence of up to 90 taps.

It is remarkable that the intervals between the taps don’t occur at random intervals; instead, the cockatoos produce a regular pulse, as Robert Heinsohn and colleagues assessed. They also noticed that each male has its individual, consistent style; some males have slow drumming rates, whereas others drum at a faster rate, or insert short sequences of faster drumming in the performance occasionally.


It is not known yet which function the performance might have. Palm cockatoos form monogamous pairs which occupy a large territory. The sound does not travel far enough to be heard by the neighbours, so a male cannot communicate with them by drumming; he always is playing solo. As most performances are attended by the female, the music probably is meant for her, and it may be a male’s way to inform its partner about its condition or age; the birds may live more than 50 years. We don’t know whether the females like the percussion and what rhythm they prefer.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Christoph Lorse (Via Flickr. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The researchers explain their work on You Tube;
short fragment of a drumming cockatoo

Heinsohn, R., C.N. Zdenek, R.B. Cunningham, J.A. Endler & N.E. Langmore, 2017. Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music. Science Advances 3: e1602399. Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1602399

Fake present

Male spider cheats female with densely wrapped rubbish

Pisaura mirabilis male cheats female with well-wrapped fake present

A male nursery web spider may offer its partner a worthless package instead of a decent nuptial gift. He wraps such a fake present in many layers of silk, Paolo Ghislandi and colleagues show, so that it takes longer before the female detects the deceit and sends him away.

When you give someone a cheap gift, you’d better wrap it well. At least, that is the rule in the nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis), a hunting spider that occurs throughout Europe, as Paolo Ghislandi and colleagues report. A male usually carries a nuptial gift when he is looking for a female to mate with. It should contain one or more prey items that he has caught to offer her and wrapped in white silk. A female, happy to get a nice meal, will allow the male to mate her, while she often rejects a male without a present, as Maria Albo had shown.


But instead of a meal, a female often finds the hard leftovers of an arthropod prey or some plant parts after removing the silk – an inedible gift that is worthless. Is a male giving such a gift in bad condition and unable to capture a prey and offer it? Or couldn’t he find anything better?

No, instead of inability it is pure deception, as Ghislandi concludes from field observations and behavioural experiments in the laboratory. Even a male that is well-fed and heavy – and therefore capable to catch and offer a prey – often cheats its partner with wrapped rubbish.

And he is successful, for as a female is unable to determine whether a white package contains something edible or not, she will accept a male with a fake present as readily as a male that carries an edible gift.


But ultimately, a cheating suitor will still be punished: the mating lasts briefly. A male can transfer its sperm while the female consumes her gift; it she is finished, he has to go. Consequently, when the gift is inedible, the mating will end soon, so a cheating male will transfer less sperm than a honest male. That is a disadvantage, because a female mates with several males and their sperm must compete for the eggs to be fertilized. The more sperm cells a male transfers, the more offspring he will sire.

More silk

Ghislandi also discovered that fake presents are wrapped in more layers of silk than real gifts, so cheating males invest a lot in wrapping. Probably, this is a trick to prolong mating, because the more silk is wrapped around the gift, the longer it takes a female to detect the deceit and stop the copulation.

Still, a really long mating will not ensue. And maybe that’s not so bad after all: a male cheating a female with a fake present may fertilize less eggs, but he saves time and energy to find other females, thereby increasing is lifetime reproductive success as well.

Willy van Strien

Photo: ©Paolo Ghislandi

Ghislandi, P.G., M. Beyer, P. Velado & C. Tuni, 2017. Silk wrapping of nuptial gifts aids cheating behaviour in male spiders. Behavioral Ecology, online February 23. Doi:10.1093/beheco/arx028
Ghislandi, P.G., Albo, M.J., Tuni, C. & T. Bilde, 2014. Evolution of deceit by worthless donations in a nuptial gift-giving spider. Current Zoology 60: 43-51. Doi: 10.1093/czoolo/60.1.43
Albo, M.J., G. Winther, C. Tuni, S. Toft & T. Bilde, 2011. Worthless donations: male deception and female counter play in a nuptial gift-giving spider. BMC Evolutionary Biology 11: 329. Doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-329

Selfknowledge in red-backed fairy-wrens

Only old and bright males seek extra-pair mates

in red-backed fairy-wrens old and bright males seek extra-pair matings

Red-backed fairy-wren males know how to behave to maximize their fitness, Denélle Dowling and Michael Dowling show. A male that has a bright breeding plumage invests in courting extra-pair females, whereas a man with a dull appearance invests in mate guarding.

Like most songbirds, red-backed fairy-wrens, which live in Australia, form socially monogamous pairs, and a couple may stay together for years. This doesn’t mean that the birds are faithful, however: roughly half of the young is not sired by the social father. Adultery is the rule.

In the breeding season, a male may adopt one of two alternative strategies. He can either invest in seeking extra-pair copulations to gain extra-pair offspring in addition to within-pair offspring, or he can stay on his own territory to defend it the against other couples together with his mate, to help provision the young – and to keep other males away from his mate to minimize the risk of being cuckolded.


What strategy is the best strategy? Jenélle Dowling and Michael Webster argued that the answer differs among males. It just depends on how attractive a male is to other females.

And the males differ greatly in attractiveness. Some have a bright, black and red plumage, while others have a dull, brownish plumage, much like a female. Almost all males aged more than two years are brightly coloured, among young males about half is bright. It was already known that females prefer bright males. Also, they prefer old males, as their age indicates that they are of good quality.

So, old black-red males are the most attractive ones. The best strategy for them will be to foray to neighbouring territories and court other females, Dowling and Webster assumed, as they stand a real chance to succeed. For dull males, on the contrary, it will be better to stay with their partner, as other females will be reluctant to copulate with them. Moreover, a dull male runs a high risk of being cuckolded by his social partner whenever an attractive male approaches her when she is alone. Young black-red males can try to gain extra-pair copulations, but they will be less likely to succeed than old males.

The researchers set up an investigation to find out whether red-backed fairy-wren males act in their best interests. And it turns out that they do. Old black-red males frequently leave to search for extra-pair females, while brown males mostly remain on their territory. Young black-red males adopt an intermediate strategy.


DNA analyses of parents and young birds revealed that black-red males (young and old) sire more extra-pair young, as expected, but less within-pair young than dull males; apparently, bright males are cuckolded more often.

The latter result is not undisputed. In other studies, including that of Jordan Karubian, brown males were found to have less young than black-red males and to be cuckolded more frequently, even though they guarded their mate closely. But still, the best strategy for them is to stay on their territory. Otherwise, they will probably be cuckolded even more.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Red-backed fairy-wren, bright male. Jim Bendon (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dowling, J. & M.S. Webster, 2017. Working with what you’ve got: unattractive males show greater mateguarding effort in a duetting songbird. Biology Letters 13: 20160682. Doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0682
Karubian, J., 2002. Costs and benefits of variable breeding plumage in the red-backed fairy-wren. Evolution, 56: 1673-1682. Doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2002.tb01479.x