One of America’s strangest mating rituals, the chest-puffing, squeaking dance of the sage grouse, is getting closer attention, thanks to a pretty little fembot.
The sage grouse, which is sort of like a more interesting type of chicken, has long captivated scientists as well as tourists because, of its elaborate mating habits. A group of researchers have infiltrated the grouse world using a custom-designed “fembot” — a robotic bird on wheels with a camera nestled in her breast.
During breeding season, males gather in open areas called leks, which can be found throughout most of the rural West. The males puff their chests, strut like peacocks, and make throaty whistling sounds, all in an effort to attract females, who walk around the lek and survey the goods.
Gail Patricelli, an animal behaviorist at the University of California-Davis, is now reviewing four mating seasons’ worth of video recordings captured by a fembot she designed, according to Science Nation, a National Science Foundation publication.
The fembot is basically half a sage grouse body attached to a small audio recorder, a microphone and a camera. Scientists use a remote control to roll her out on a small train track set up on the lek. Like the creepy feminina machinas in Austin Powers, a little bob of the head is enough to get the males’ attention. Their ensuing fights and bizarre displays are then caught on film.
Part of the reason the fembot is so successful is that male sage grouses are particularly randy, hoping to mate with as many females as they can, as often as possible. The female grouses are the picky ones, blowing off most suitors. Researchers estimate only about one in 10 male sage grouse mate in a given season. The ones who do mate are veritable prairie players — Patricelli told Science Nation that the top male in her study mated 47 times in one season.
Sage grouse studies could provide a model to better understand the evolution of animal communication, Patricelli said.
“It helps us understand the evolution of very basic behaviors like social skills and social interactions and two-way conversations, and how these evolve by the process of sexual selection,” she said.
[Via Science Nation]
Video courtesy NSF. Some weeks the robots are so good we need two.