Brave singles, tired with your traditional dating methods, take to reality dating shows in the hope that these strange avenues might lead to love. But just as there are many ways to reality-date, there are many similar ways to mate*.
*Here, we’re looking at reproductive behaviour between males and females – not that there isn’t ample evidence of same-sex couplings across all kinds of species.
Married at First Sight – Prairie voles high on hormones
In this controversial show, an expert panel of scientists, psychologists and relationship experts matched total strangers and sent them down the aisle, where they met for the first time and, promptly, married.
The theory? The couples were so compatible that they’d immediately form a lifelong bond.
While this sentiment rarely plays out on the show – most couples split up during or soon-after their wedding – this romantic fancy exists for one small mammal: the prairie vole.
But instead of love at first sight, it’s love at first, well, … sex.
When prairie voles mate for the first time, their brains undergo permanent chemical changes that make them monogamous, usually for life.
The key ingredients in their sex-induced love potion are two hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin. During and after having sex, prairie voles get hormonally addicted to their partner, leading to a stable co-parenting arrangement. They even get lovesick when their partner dies.
Because oxytocin and vasopressin also play a role in human love and attachment, scientists have been interested in prairie vole relationships, and have conducted experiments to test the role of these hormones in monogamy.
When a monogamous prairie vole couple was given drugs that suppress oxytocin and vasopressin, their commitment to one another waned – they became promiscuous, and were less likely to defend and care for their partner.
A complementary experiment studied the meadow vole – the prairie vole’s doppelganger and close relative – a species that is normally promiscuous. When given oxytocin and vasopressin, meadow voles adopted the monogamous behaviours of their cousins.
By adjusting these key hormones, scientists are able to hit the monogamy on and off switch, underscoring the vital role hormones play in long-term partnerships.
The Bachelorette – Lekking males, choosy females
The Bachelorette sees one lucky woman, looking for love, presented with a bunch of eligible men from which she slowly takes her pick. In the animal kingdom, the closest thing to this strategy is a mating system called ‘lekking’.
Derived from the Swedish word ‘lek’, meaning “play”, lekking males all get together in one area, and use vocal, visual, physical and chemical displays to compete for female attention.
A female will arrive at the lek with the sole purpose of finding a mate. She’ll check out the competition, compare their physiques, musks and courtship displays, and in the end decide which one to mate with.
For the males, lekking might seem counterintuitive; wouldn’t they do better without their competition standing next to them, trying to tempt their prospective mates away? But think of a lek as the equivalent of a mating waterhole: the more good quality males there are, the more likely the females are to come check it out.
Subordinate males (perhaps smaller, less experienced, with less impressive displays) will often choose to display near dominant males to increase their chances of getting noticed. It’s like hanging around with a hot friend – but one that very likely will bully you away, or cock-block you at every opportunity.
The main difference between lek mating and The Bachelorette? The best males will usually get the chance to mate with many visiting females, not just the one.
The dominant male in a greater sage-grouse lek will mate with around 80 per cent of the visiting females, while most of the other males just stand by and watch. It seems most of the females are looking for the same things in a male; so many dreams come true, so many hearts broken.
The Bachelor – topi antelope, a rare example of males playing hard to get
In the animal kingdom, The Bachelorette screens much more often than The Bachelor. When it comes to mate choice it’s usually the female that’s choosy, because they generally invest more energy in their offspring than males do.
Making sperm takes less energy than making eggs, and males generally produce their gametes in much higher quantities. In species that give birth to live young, mating can involve even higher reproductive costs for females.
So if babies are expensive, females are choosey because they want to make the right investment. If babies are cheap, males compete with one another to mate with as many females as possible.
But a role reversal occurs in the topi antelope (Damaliscus lunatus jimela): the females are persistent, and the males are resistant.
The topi mating season lasts around one month a year, with individual females fertile for just one day. Needing to get pregnant during this short window, females aggressively challenge one another for access to top-quality males, even interrupting them during sex.
In this sexual melee, the male’s goal is to mate with as many females as possible, which can be a daunting task; it’s not uncommon for males to collapse with exhaustion, unable to meet the demands of keen females.
So when a female wants to engage in round two – increasing her chances of getting pregnant by the hotshot male – he might choose to refuse her advances, saving his sperm for someone new.
Beauty and the Geek – sneaker males get the girls
Seeing its last seasons a few years back, this show paired geeky dudes with beautiful women in the slightly dubious expectation that they would learn something from one another (social skills for the former, smarts for the latter). While this wasn’t a dating show per se, each season promised blossoming romance between the beauties and the brains.
The notion that alternative strategies – like being brainy instead of brawny – can make a male reproductively fit led biologists to coin the term “sneaker male”. They might not be the biggest, the toughest or the showiest – things we usually associate with males’ mating success – so they use other tactics, like their smarts or trickery, to get the girl.
Sneaker-male behaviour has been documented in hundreds of species. In the Taurus scarab beetle (Onthophagus taurus), most males have large horns and battle one another for access to females. These macho-males will guard tunnels to female nests, physically barring access by other males.
Up against these armoured bouncers, sneaker males play the postman at the back door. They don’t have horns, which means they’re able to tunnel underground, making a subterranean beeline for the female’s nest and avoiding any competition.
And the energy they save not growing horns? They put it into growing larger reproductive organs, putting their size where it counts. These kinds of mating strategies show that ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t always mean whoever goes to Crossfit.
If You Are The One – mutual mate-choice in the potbellied seahorse
This hugely popular Chinese dating show starts with a lineup of 24 women, each with a light in front of them. A man comes on stage, assesses the lineup and chooses his favourite girl.
Through interviews and film clips, the contestants learn more about man. They can keep their light on to show they’re interested in him, or switch it off if they don’t like what they see.
If at the end no lights are left on, the man walks away empty-handed. But if multiple women are still interested, it’s up to the guy to choose.
This is an example of mutual mate-choice, where both parties get to make choices based on what they’re attracted to. A study published in 2012 showed that the potbellied seahorse also engages in this egalitarian mating strategy.
The study looked at two variables in seahorse attractiveness: olfactory cues (each seahorse’s individual odor) and their body size.
For the female seahorses, the important factor was how the male smelled; more specifically, the females judged the odors related to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). MHC-mediated odor cues can be really important in mate choice, as they help the female determine whether a prospective partner’s immune system is compatible with her own.
By rejecting MHC-identical mates and reproducing with a male that has different immune system genes, females can avoid inbreeding and help ensure her offspring are have a strong immune system.
Smell wasn’t an important factor for male seahorse mate choice – they were more interested in bagging the biggest female they could. In fish, larger females are generally more fecund (they lay more eggs), so choosing a large lady has a clear benefit.
Females, on the other hand, thought size didn’t matter in their males.
Undressed – albatross couples perform acts of intimacy to test their attraction
Undressed is a new dating show coming to Australia inspired by research suggesting you can accelerate the process of attraction by encouraging physical and emotional contact, Undressed puts the theory to the test.
Each episode sees two pairs of strangers meet in a room furnished only with a bed and a large-screen TV. Instructions and questions flash up on the screen, first directing participants to strip each other down to their underwear.
As the experiment continues, the couples get into bed and answer a series of probing and deeply personal questions. At the conclusion of the date, each person is given a choice: stay and get to know their counterpart better, or leave.
Testing boundaries with a prospective partner through intimate behaviour is seen in the elaborate courtship displays of wandering albatross. They dance together, bow to one another, preen each other’s feathers, hit their beaks rhythmically together, and tilt their heads back to call to the skies.
These beautiful rituals can last from a few seconds to 15 minutes, and are vital in establishing the pair’s compatibility before they form a lifelong bond. Pair formation can take years, with birds dancing together each season until they’re sure they’ve found the one.
Undressed premiers on Monday 16 January at 9.30pm on SBS, with the first episode available On Demand on 12 January.
If You Are The One is available On Demand