In the rainforests of Panama we find these attractive birds called golden-collared manakins. From the middle of January until June males spend a lot of time dancing in their own arena built between young trees, so called saplings, on the forest floor to attract females. Since their courtship dance seems like a well-practiced choreography, with incredibly fast jumps and flips and loud “snap”- sounds that they produce with their wings, we wanted to see what will happen if we disturb their dancing routine. Maybe they would leave their well-prepared arenas and display somewhere else? Or would they modify their choreography?
So we went out in the tropical forests and started filming (check out the video!) and observed the males in their daily routines to attract females. Once we had recorded their choreography, we placed a big piece of natural bark on the mating sapling within the males’ arenas, the sapling where all the mating occurs. This resembled a natural event, i.e. a fallen branch, that could happen every day in the rainforest. We filmed and observed the males for 4 consecutive days. At first, the males seemed very annoyed and spent a lot of time looking at the bark that was lying in their arena as they were unable to display their well-established choreography. Then they started to display by using the remaining accessible saplings of their arena and some males even managed to attract females again with their new display sequences. On the 5th day, we took the bark away again and the males peaked their courtship activity, many went back to their well-studied and long-used courtship routine but some males included the new jumping sequence that they had established during our test period.
Our results suggest that elaborate courtship displays of manakins have motor sequence learning as an underlying mechanism. Although males are flexible in building a choreography, they need time to develop new routines. This is a first insight into the role of learning in the development of elaborate courtship displays. Stay tuned for more results!
Click here to access the online version of the paper (free download!)