Lovebirds and Love Darts: The Wild World of Mating

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 13, 2004

Valentine's Day Special Report

Valentine's Day may have its origins in what ancient civilizations saw as the courting rituals of the animal world. But among cupid fish, lovebirds, and "love dart"-firing snails, mating is apparently anything but an affair of the heart.

The winged god-child known to the ancient Greeks as Eros and to the Romans as Cupid, had an eye for mischief. Anyone whose heart he pierced with his arrows fell deeply, immediately, and irrevocably in love.

So how did a carnivorous freshwater fish with a reputation for being solitary and aggressive come to be called Cupid? The Cupid cichlid's (Biotodoma cupido) cousins are named green terror, Jack Dempsey, convict, and black belt—distinctly more appropriate for fish that aquarium dealers recommend be kept only in a tank of similar-sized fish that can defend themselves.

"The Cupid cichlid is named after the Cupido Creek or River which feeds into another river in Surinam," said Douglas J. Sweet, adding that the information comes from the Catalog of Fishes by William N. Eschmeyer. Sweet is curator of fishes at the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit, Michigan. "The fish is not named after Cupid but the river the specimens were captured from."

In the Middle Ages people believed that birds found their mates for life on February 14, and Valentine's Day cards frequently depict lovebirds. But do lovebirds deserve their loving rep?

Lovebirds (Agapornis) acquired their name because it looks like they're constantly cuddling, sitting in pairs, preening each other's feathers. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that lovebirds couldn't live without their mates.

Few Birds Are Faithful

The lovebird in the wild is one of the rare creatures that is monogamous, and "so the perfect couple exists," said Dirk Van den Abeele, laughing. Van den Abeele has written several books on lovebirds and is president of the Belgian Lovebird Society.

"However, when a mate is lost they waste no time in searching and achieving the securing of a new mate," said Al Decoteau, a director of the Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors. Until the advent of genetic testing in the late 1980s, 90 percent of bird species were thought to be monogamous. DNA analysis of nestlings put the kibosh on that idea. Roughly 90 percent of bird species pair-bond—hook up for a breeding season and raise chicks together. But few are faithful and many males wind up raising other males' babies.

"Extra-pair copulations"—the scientific way to say "infidelity"—serve a purpose for both the male and female in the animal kingdom. Each wants to produce as many offspring as possible.

Infidelity ups the male's chance to produce more offspring because individual females are limited in the number of babies they can produce. The catch to individual evolutionary fitness is that quality counts as much as quantity; producing lots of babies that die before they reproduce doesn't count.

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