Sexual selection: a peacock’s tale

Today’s topic began with a YouTube video
featuring Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein (click to view). They discussed the peacock’s elaborate plumage with the idea that peahens were choosing the most magnificent displays. Weinstein opined that it may be more difficult for males to survive with such long trains (= tail feathers folded away, extending posteriorly). Thus females were handicapping their male offspring by selecting peacock mating partners with longer and longer more elaborate tail feathers.

According to Wikipedia:
“The function of the peacock’s elaborate train has been debated for over a century. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin found it a puzzle, hard to explain through ordinary natural selection. His later explanation, sexual selection, is widely but not universally accepted. In the 20th century, Amotz Zahavi argued that the train was a handicap, and that males were honestly signalling their fitness in proportion to the splendour of their trains. Despite extensive study, opinions remain divided on the mechanisms involved.”

Figure 3. Peafowl mating. The males stands crouched upon the back and hips of the female.

Figure 1. Peafowl mating. The males stands crouched upon the back and hips of the female.

in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1735+ taxa) peafowl (genus: Pavo) nest with the common chicken (genus: Gallus). Both are terminal taxa.

At the start, I question:

  1. Do peahens always or often or used to pick the most lavish peacock?
  2. Do peacocks actually compete with each other? Or do most of them give up after sizing up the competition?
  3. Do peacocks mate with as many peahens as they can or do they form pair bonds?
  4. In other words, have we examined the situation enough to know?
  5. Were Dawkins and Weinstein just guessing based on end results?
  6. Added after publication, based on a a reader’s comment: What are the differences between domestic and wild peafowl? (If there are any wild peafowl.)

Summarizing earlier studies, Callaway 2011 wrote:
“Size doesn’t always matter for peacocks. Peahens don’t necessarily choose the males with the biggest tails — but small tails are right out.”

Takahashi et al. 2008 concluded,
“our findings indicate that the peacock’s train (1) is not the universal target of female choice, (2) shows small variance among males across populations and (3) based on current physiological knowledge, does not appear to reliably reflect the male condition.”

Yorzinski et al. 2017 write:
“In species where a male trait is only evaluated by one of the sexes, it is often the males that are assessing the trait, suggesting that male traits often evolve initially in the context of male–male competition, and subsequently, in female choice (Berglund et al., 1996; Borgia and Coleman, 2000). 

Like deer antlers or any other tournament species. Meanwhile, what are the peahens doing?

“We know little about how animals selectively direct their attention during mate and rival assessment. Previous work has shown that female peafowl shift their gaze between potential mates and their environment, potentially scanning for predators and other conspecifics while assessing mates. And, when evaluating a mate, peahens selectively direct their attention toward specific display regions of peacocks. In contrast, we do not know how males selectively alter their attention when assessing other males. (Citations deleted).

“We therefore investigated how males direct their attention when they assess potential rivals, using peacocks as a model system.”

“Competition among peacocks is intense as mating success is highly skewed toward a small proportion of successful males. Males compete with each other by displaying their erect trains or walking parallel to other males. If aggression escalates, they chase each other and engage in fights that consist of them jumping and using their spurs Males with longer trains and tarsi establish territories in central locations within leks and engage in more agonistic behaviors with other males. In contrast, males with shorter trains are less likely to establish display territories (Citations deleted).

“it is clear from these sample periods that males spend a significant fraction of their time monitoring their rivals.

“While assessing their competitors, peacocks did not spend very much time looking at females. In fact, they allocated less than 5%

“Further experiments will be necessary to determine how much time males allocate to monitoring females while they are courting them. We found that when males directed their gaze toward females,

Peacocks also devote a significant amount of their daily time budget to preening (Walther, 2003) and directing attention toward themselves could allow them to monitor the condition of their feathers.

“Similar to the results in this study on peacocks, peahens primarily gazed at the lower display regions of males: at their lower trains, body and legs (Yorzinski et al., 2013).”

Here are a few, short ‘peacocks on display’ YouTube videos 
showing the variation in the use of the display behavior or lack thereof.

Callaway 2011 quotes Petrie (of Petrie and Halliday 1994),
“At the end of the day, we will never know what peahens are looking at and how they select their mates. You can’t ask them.”

Figure 2. Peacock flying.

Figure 2. Peacock flying.

One final thought:
Since predators are likely to attack from the rear of the peacock (video #3 above), what a tiger will get is a mouthful or paw-full of feathers, which can detach under sufficient strain, much like the expendable tail of certain lizards. Thus the hypothesis that a long train of feathers is an impediment to survival in an attack may be true only rarely… which is one reason why peacocks are a relatively successful species, all hypothetical doubts aside.

Callaway E 2011. Size doesn’t always matter for peacocks. Nature 1107 online
Dakin R and Mongomerie R 2011. Peahens prefer peacocks displaying more eyespots, but rarely. Animal Behaviour doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.03.016
Petrie M and Halliday T 1994. Experimental and natural changes in the peacock’s (Pavo cristatus) train can affect mating success. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 35, 213-217.
Takahashi M, Arita H, Hiraiwa-Hasegawa M and Hasegqawa T 2008. Peahens do not prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains. Animal Behaviour 75(4):1209–1219.
Yorzinski JL, Patricelli GL, Bykau S and Platt ML 2017. Selective attention in peacocks during assessment of rival males. Journal of Experimental Biology (2017) 220, 1146-1153 doi:10.1242/jeb.150946


2 thoughts on “Sexual selection: a peacock’s tale

  1. I wonder how much of the splendor of the peacock’s tail can be attributed to human selection. Are the studies made of wild birds, or in flocks long “domesticated”? Are there any truly wild flocks that can be studied?

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