In social courtship, it pays to be a good wingman

ResearchBlogging.orgThe search for a mate is traditionally a selfish enterprise. After all, the ultimate goal is reproduction, and — barring any effect of kin selection — natural selection only cares about how many babies you make, not how many you help to make. This is fundamentally a biological question, though, and if there’s a universal rule in biology, it’s that nature is good at making exceptions.

One such exception is the wire-tailed manakin. A study in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society seems to show that male manakins can boost their own mating success by helping other males attract mates [$-a]. Manakins are a family of brightly-colored neotropical birds, and the males of many manakin species attract females by putting on dancing displays, as seen in this video:

(I seem to recall that there’s also some excellent footage of manakin dancing in David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds.)

To dance for females, male manakins gather at locations called “leks,” where most try to establish a small territory to perform. Among wire-tailed manakins, though, some males will team up to dance — presumably because if one brightly-colored male jumping around on a branch is attention-grabbing, two or three are even more so. But in these “coordinated displays,” one performer, the socially dominant one, is most likely to mate with the females who like the performance. So what’s in it for the other guys?

There seem to be two possible (though not mutually exclusive) explanations [$-a]: (1) that the mate-attracting dancing does double duty to establish social dominance relationships among males, and (2) that, even if it wins fewer mates than the “lead” role, being a supporting player in a successful cooperative display means better mating prospects than trying to go it alone. To try and disentangle these two possibilities, the new study’s authors followed the behavior of wire-tailed manakins at several leks for four years, building a “social network” of male-male cooperation at the leks and counting the offspring each male bird by taking DNA fingerprints of the males and of newly-hatched chicks in the nests of females who attended each lek.

Although the most reproductively successful males at each lek were all territorial, defending their own spot at the lek and dominating other males who joined in the display on that territory, non-territorial “floater” males tended to make more babies if they joined in more displays. In fact, the number of offspring produced was best predicted by the number of cooperative display interactions in which a male joined, whether he had his own territory or not. This complements an earlier study by the same group [$-a], which showed that a male’s “tenure” — how long he had been dominant in a territory within a lek — was the best predictor of mating success, but that a male’s rise through the social hierarchy at a lek was facilitated by cooperative interactions with other males.

In short, male manakins seem to help each other in mating displays for essentially selfish reasons. Being a supporting dancer has a coattail effect, earning more mates than trying to go solo, and it helps young males improve their social status toward the day when they can establish their own display territory.


Prum, R.O. (1994). Phylogenetic analysis of the evolution of alternative social behavior in the manakins (Aves: Pipridae). Evolution, 48, 1657-75 DOI:

Ryder, T., McDonald, D., Blake, J., Parker, P., & Loiselle, B. (2008). Social networks in the lek-mating wire-tailed manakin (Pipra filicauda) Proc.R. Soc. B, 275 (1641), 1367-74 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0205

Ryder, T., Parker, P., Blake, J., & Loiselle, B. (2009). It takes two to tango: reproductive skew and social correlates of male mating success in a lek-breeding bird Proc. R. Soc. B, 276 (1666), 2377-84 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0208