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Love Lessons From The Animal Kingdom


An anthropologist reveals what we humans have to learn from reptiles, amphibians and other critters about courting — and keeping — a life-long mate.

David Givens, Ph.D.

et’s be honest: When it comes to sex, humans often act like animals. As an anthropologist, I should know. I’ve been studying the mating behaviors of our four-legged (and six-legged and no-legged) friends for awhile, and have noticed some startling similarities to our own love lives. In fact, I’ve even uncovered some new pick-up tricks that we humans should try sometime. Here’s what these creatures can teach us about wooing and keeping a life-long mate.

Lesson #1: Send out the right scent
How animals do it: For many animals, courtship can be a very smelly business. The North American bull moose, for example, marks his stomping ground with urine to
The power of scent: A single molecule of the female gypsy moth’s odor can be detected by a male seven miles away.
attract the females. And if you’ve ever doubted just how powerful the scent of a woman can be, consider the female gypsy moth, whose odor is so powerful that a single molecule can be picked up by a male hovering seven miles away. It’s a long hike, yet preferable to attempting to just bump into each other mid-flight.
How you can do it: Many people spray on some perfume or cologne before heading out on a date, but scent can be used in much more subtle — and effective — ways. For starters, men are actually better off not wearing cologne when they meet a woman, since the smell can be deemed too strong. Women, on the other hand, can manipulate how dates see them with scent. One study found that men perceived women wearing a spicy floral perfume to be an average of twelve pounds lighter than those sporting a different aroma.

Lesson #2: Be devious rather than direct
How animals do it: The three-spine stickleback fish is famed for its “zig-zag dance,” a ritual where the male swims back and forth in front across the female’s field of view. Not only does it give the object of his affection time to check him out from head to tailfin, it’s also less threatening than if he’d approached her straight on.
How you can do it: Humans can copy the stickleback’s oblique technique by trying the pass-by. Some women do this already (this explains why they repeatedly strut by men en route to the ladies’ room), but men should also give it a try. In the pass-by, the destination is not the endpoint but simply a means to be seen—and, with proper nonchalance, establish eye contact with the person of interest and gauge his or her response to your proximity. Seeing a head-nod, a smile, or an eyebrow-flash of recognition shows your silent pass has made a positive impression.

Lesson #3: Show that you’re harmless
How animals do it: One of the most vulnerable areas on many an animal’s body is the throat. This may be why so many species (dogs, wolves, fish, and reptiles) bare this area when trying to prove their good intentions, whether it’s to members of the opposite sex or a more dominant member of their own pack. Even crocodiles will stick their necks out, so to speak, when an alpha-croc swims by. What could be a better way to say, “My life is in your hands?”
How you can do it: People also use this throat-baring tactic to show others it’s safe to approach. While catching a drink after work, a man might loosen his tie and undo the top button of his shirt. A woman may wear a wide-necked top. You see this in the media as well: In the movie Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton left her turtlenecks behind when wooing Jack Nicholson.

Lesson #4: Mimic your mate’s movements
How animals do it: When North American whooping cranes go courting, they use a principal called isopraxism to establish rapport. The male faces the female, flaps his arms, and bobs his head up and down. To show she is equally smitten, the
To show she is equally smitten, the female whooping crane mimics the male’s signals in syncopated rhythm.
female mimics his signals in syncopated rhythm. As he bows, she rises, and as he rises, she bows, and so on until they’re ready to mate.
How you can do it: All living things find alikeness reassuring, so it may come as no surprise that isopraxism works wonders for humans, too. If you cross your legs, lean back in your chair, or sip your drink as your date does, you’re showing him or her that you’re on the same wavelength, paving the way for more romantic mirrorings in the future.

Lesson #5: Stay close for a commitment
How animals do it: Animals really know how to stay attached at the hip. When mating, many frogs and toads assume a position called amplexus, in which the male climbs onto the female’s back and hangs on for days on end so he can guarantee he’s around to fertilize her eggs when she releases them. The male angler fish takes this one step further by biting into the much larger female’s body and hanging on until their tissue fuses together. To anglers, “til death do us part” is more than just a saying; it’s a biological fact.
How you can do it: While fusing with your partner’s body isn’t an option, humans can still find plenty of ways to strengthen their bond ever when they’re apart. That “thinking of you” email you sent to their office? That vacation you two are planning for summer? They’re all ploys to convince someone you like to stick around for awhile. Try them and you may very well make it about as long as those anglers.


David Givens, author of Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, is an anthropologist who specializes in nonverbal communication. When he is not people-watching, he studies the courtship of reptiles, mammals, and birds.
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