The lek, one of the most fascinating courtships in the animal kingdom


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One of the most unique aspects of the evolutionary biology of birds is their mating strategies, which aim to find the most suitable partner with which to exchange their genetic material. Although monogamy is the most frequent system in these animals, there are cases of polygyny, in which a male mates with several females.

This system is used, for example, by the most voluminous of our flying birds, the Great Bustard (Otis is late), a species in which males can reach fifteen kilos in weight, which is a real challenge to the laws of gravity.

The bustard is a steppe bird of great sexual dimorphism, to the point that males almost triple in weight than females. When the mating season arrives, the males gather in very defined areas where they carry out their nuptial stops. There takes place a kind of recognition wheel in which they carry out a spectacular courtship with which they try to impress the females and which scientists have called lek.

Etymologically it comes from the Swedish lek, which means “recreational, pleasant or little regulated activities”, but which could also be translated as “sand” or “Combat site”, a toponymic place where a group of males will compete for the favor of the females.

They are the ones who choose

The most conspicuous males, the ones with the best genetically gifted ones, will be placed in the center of the lek, while those of lesser rank, the second-tier ones, will occupy the periphery. The females will observe the arrangement in detail and will try to mate with those that are located in the center.

Every year in late winter, the leks congregate a large group of males and females, as it is an ideal setting to maximize the possibility of reproductive success and minimize the risk of being attacked by predators. It has been observed that the fidelity to these places is very high, touching 94% in the case of females and reaching up to 84% for males.

There the males contour themselves, showing their white ventral plumage that serves as a signaling function, and they perform races, chases, intimidations and ritualized confrontations with other males, which sometimes last for more than an hour.

They self-pound to be more beautiful

Some males go to the appointment “doped”, at least this has been confirmed by scientific studies. In them the researchers have demonstrated the existence of a “self-medication” prior to the nuptial stop with toxic insects for the body.

They consume certain species of beetles (Berberomeloe majalis and Physomeloe corallifer) which have a high amount of cantharidin, a poison that is avoided by most birds because it could cause death, a risk that compensates for male bustard because it deworms their body and makes them appear healthier and stronger before the scrutinizing gaze of the females.

Once the pairs have been chosen, copulations take place mainly in April, and the incubation of the eggs takes place in the following month. Little by little the fertilized females retreat to the nesting places, where they take advantage of the planting cover to go unnoticed.

They usually place the eggs in a slight depression that they practice in the cultivation or fallow areas, having a special inclination for the places they had chosen to nest previously.

The males systematically ignore the incubation and rearing of the offspring, leaving the helpless female to do this task. Chickens will begin to take their first steps a few hours after being born and their diet will be eminently insectivorous during the first months, changing to vegetarian with the arrival of the autumn cold.

M. Jara
M. Jara

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and the author of several popular books.

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