Do antelopes lie to get sex?

The NY Times reports on those tricky antelopes:

This is a story about deception and sex in the wild plains of Kenya.  

Antelope deception, that is, for the purposes of sex.  

During mating season, a male topi antelope will try to keep females in heat from leaving his territory by pretending that a predator might be in the area, according to a study that will appear in the July issue of The American Naturalist.When a female appears to be leaving, the male will run in front of her, freeze in place, stare in the direction that she is going and snort loudly. Typically, that snort means that a predatory lion or cheetah was spotted, but in this case the male is faking it.

 Anthropomorphizing can be cute, but one could worry this goes too far.  However, the original article provides a definition of deceiving that can help a bit:  

“acts from the normal repertoire of the agent, deployed such that another individual is likely to misinterpret what the acts signify, to the advantage of the agent” 

Still, one wonders why the “other individual” is misinterpreting, and what the misinterpretation amounts to.  Presumably, the female  antelope’s reaction  is appropriate as a reaction to an alarm signal.  Perhaps the idea is that she misinterprets his intentions.  However, this suggests that she sees other antelopes as minded creatures having intentions, which attributes fairly heavy cognitive machinery to her.  Further, since male topi antelopes apparently do this quite a bit, one suspects she will not be surprised at the outcome.

 The journal article is free and it contains a number of examples of lies misleading actions by members of various species.

7 thoughts on “Do antelopes lie to get sex?

  1. Perhaps the male antelope is not actually “lying”, but is instead demonstrating to the female his superior protection technique in case she is ever threatened – showing her how fierce and brave and “macho” he is?

  2. Talk of females antelopes being good at detecting lies, is as problematic as male antelopes lying. Alot of hay gets made about the mating behavior of animals, and lots of it gets anthropomorphized for fun or in all seriousness. We see discussions not only of deceptive males and coy and discriminating females, but also of gay animals, of promiscuous female animals, of sexual violence and rape in animals, of animals resisting rape and sexual violence. I find it troubling when I hear (and it is not uncommon to hear it) progressives use examples from the animal kingdom to argue that for example homosexuality is natural because animals do it or that sexually aggressive women are natural because there are sexually aggressive non human primates. While it is a good thing to break down knee jerk links between say femininity or being female and passiveness or being passive, just because the conclusion is pleasing, it doesn’t make the arguments any better. Thoughts?

  3. Hi Alpha, I hope I didn’t seem to suggest the females are good at detecting lies. I do think the idea of interpreting here is problematic, but “misinterpreting” seems even worse because she is merely reacting to an alarm signal as an alarm signal.

    I agree pretty entirely with what you say, though perhaps with one exception. When we have people talking about what God hates or what is unnatural, then I think it is fair to point out that, e.g., same sex coupling is in nature quite independently of human moral choice.

    j, I’m been trying to think my way through this; I hope I don’t bore you with the results: in trying to describe what is going on I think I’d start with the idea that there are mechanisms in all mammals (and all other animals, I think) that set up a connection between rewards and behavior. Behavior that secures a reward is likely to be repeated. The next question would be whether the alarm reaction is triggered ‘naturally’ by the female’s behavior or is it learned. It is remarkable that social animals even in the wild can transmit behavior to others. At least at one time in England it seemed every blue tit knew to peck at tops of milk bottles to get some cream. This is almost certainly learned behavior. About antelopes I haven’t a clue whether they learn it.

    There’s a third question: why does the female react the same way to reward signals even after evidence that it goes off where there’s no predator. Animals seem to have a high tolerance for “false positives” (e.g., alarm signal but nothing alarming). There are good reasons why they should. If all alarms are reacted to, then one doesn’t miss the ones that are real warnings.

  4. jj: The behavior of the male antelopes is very similar to the mating behavior of many creatures. For instance, wild turkeys in the presence of females during mating season in Belize puff up their chests, flap their wings, spread their tail feathers, strut and dance around belligerently, appear by the sound to be screaming really horrible nasty threatening things to each other at top volume, rush at each other, attack each other, etc – all to impress the female who will choose her mate based on the endearing “masculine” qualities thus revealed – presumably not based on charm and gifts of wine and chocolates.

  5. j, I think I see where you’re coming from. I was thinking in terms of a distinction between (a) why a trait survives and is in fact good for the individual and (b) what triggers the manifestion of the trait in a particular individual.

    The antelope display might have a genetic base and survive because the female succumbs and he has more offspring, but its display could still be triggered by something else. Maybe an escaping female smells a lot like the way a distant preditor does, for example.

    There might be a similar thing going on if it is learned. That is, the antelope gets the connection between the display and the sex, but needn’t have any understanding of how it is that the female succumbs.

  6. And we can’t rule out plain old instinct…might or might not be “learned” behavior.

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