“There are lions and cheetahs and leopards out there, my dear. You’d be better off staying here with me.”
This is how male topi antelope lie for sex.
The area of Kenya where they live, Masai Mara National Reserve, is indeed filled with large predators that find antelopes to be just delicious, and so the topi have developed warning calls that they sound when it’s time to scurry away or else be eaten. But, according to an American Naturalist study, the devious topi males have figured out how to use their calls to fake the threat of immediate danger and keep females around, according to research leader Jakob Bro-Jørgensen.
From February to March, male topi hold small territories through which receptive females pass to assess each male’s mating potential. The authors noticed that, while a female in estrus was on a male’s territory, the male would sometimes emit alarm calls, even in the complete absence of a predator. These false alarms are acoustically indistinguishable from true alarm snorts [Ars Technica].
The motivation is easy to see: Normally, during the one day a year that a female topi is sexually receptive, she’ll have sex 11 times with four separate males, on average. However, if a male cries “wolf”—or in this case, perhaps “hyena”—she might stick around his territory, which improves his reproductive odds. Indeed, the researchers found that the males almost never made false predator calls unless there was a lady around and he didn’t want her to wander.
“In fact, males quite frequently pull the trick on females in heat and one may ask why females keep responding to alarms at all,” Bro-Jørgensen said. “The answer seems to be that females are better off erring on the side of caution, because failing to react to a true alarm could easily mean death in a place like the Masai Mara, where it’s literally crawling with large predators” [MSNBC].
The mating game is full of liars and cheaters, or course—just check out DISCOVER’s gallery of the worst offenders. Because their prevarication employs the fear of death, topi are among the most successful, too. After a fake snort of alarm the males, on average, got to have sex nearly three more times. So expect the lying to continue.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons