Animals perform what looks like a dance for specific reasons, whether to attract a mate, lure prey or as a form of communication.
‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is no longer the only must-watch weekend TV show where viewers are entertained with impressive moves. The second edition of nature documentary ‘Planet Earth II’ featured footage of grizzly bears that appeared to be dancing against trees. The “pole-dancing” bears appeared to seek out specific trees then rub their backs up and down them.
Unfortunately, it’s doubtful the bears were performing a routine that would take them to the much-coveted Blackpool Tower Ballroom. Instead, they were actually scratching their backs against the trees to help them shed their thick winter coat. The moves also help them to spread their scent so that other bears know who is around and potential lethal fights can be avoided.
Plenty of other animals perform what looks like a dance for specific reasons, whether this is to attract a mate, lure prey or as a form of communication. The dance rituals have evolved because animals that behave this way gain some sort of competitive advantage, so are able to live longer and pass their “dancing” genes on when they reproduce.
For example, gulls do a kind of riverdance that simulates the vibrations of rain on the ground. This draws worms up to the surface where they are easily picked off and eaten by the gulls. The individual gulls that undertake this apparent dancing behaviour gain food and so decrease their chance of starvation, leading to the survival of the fittest.
Here are just a few more animals that dance:
Could you tell your friends where to find food just by dancing? Honey bees perform an interpretative “waggle dance” for members of their hive to show where a food source of nectar is. The dance consists of waggles (vibrations) and loops, where the direction of the waggle indicates the direction of the nectar source in relation to the position of the sun in the sky. The length of the waggle indicates how far away the nectar source is.
For example, a dance containing two seconds of waggling in a vertical direction indicates that other bees should head out directly towards the sun for roughly two kilometres to find the source of the nectar. Many performances on ‘Strictly’ tell a story but perhaps not to quite the same extent as the waggle dance.
‘Strictly’ viewers were mesmerised by Ed Balls’ salsa to ‘Gangnam Style’. There was even footage of Darcey Bussell gripping her fellow judges and freezing in either delight or terror.
In a similar way, prey can be mesmerised by the dance of the stoat. When capturing large or difficult-to-catch prey, the stoat performs a fast, bizarre dance, creeping closer and closer until it is able to pounce and deliver a killing blow. The prey is transfixed until it is too late to run.
Grebes are graceful water birds that are noted for their elaborate courtship dances. Males and females pair up and undertake a dance duet in perfect synchrony, similar to a passionate Argentine tango or possibly a beautiful Viennese waltz. The purpose of this dance is to form bonds between the pairs and show commitment. The more effort your partner puts in, the more effort they should also put in to raising offspring.
Most birds-of-paradise, such as the six-plumed bird-of-paradise species, have elaborate mating rituals. The males are typical show-offs. They are highly ornamented with head plumes and iridescent feathers, and they prance around to attract the drab females. The females choose the highest quality mates, and this is indicated via the quality of their dance performance.
First, the males undertake careful preparation, producing a meticulously cleaned stage to perform on, which they decorate with berries. Then, the males show off their amazing plumage by performing a dance of head bobs, shimmies and turns. They even fan their feathers to produce a skirt or cape that they show off to great effect, similar to the matadors in the Paso Doble dance. The females will only choose the males that they view as “fab-u-lous”.
Louise Gentle, Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Ecology, Nottingham Trent University.