A study published in Science on January 11 seems to be the first to lay empirical evidence that concur with Charles Darwin’s hypothesis: … that mate selection might have contributed to the evolution of intelligence or cognitive abilities. Scientists from China and the Netherlands collaborated in a study on budgerigars, Melopsittacus undulatus. Based on what they observed, problem-solving skills apparently increased the attractiveness of male birds. Accordingly, female birds chose to spend more time with male birds that appear to be smarter.
Darwin on mate selection
In animal kingdom, mate selection is a real deal. One of the generalized traits that distinguish the animal from the plant is the former’s tendency to select a mate. Animals, including humans, have their set of preferences when it comes to choosing a mate. While plants chiefly let nature do the “selection” for them, animals tend to seek a potential mate by themselves. And when they find a suitable mate of their choice, they often make a conscientious effort to succeed at coupling. In particular, males engage first in a courtship ritual, for example, by wooing a female with a song, a dance, or by a display of beauty or prowess.
Sexual selection evolved as one of the means of natural selection. A male, for instance, chooses a female to mate with, and, if need be, may tenaciously compete against other males to stack the odds in his favor. Charles Darwin’s long-standing theories on sexual selection are still relevant to this day. Darwin believed that sexual selection had a key role in how humans evolved and diverged into distinct human populations. In view of that, sexual selection could have contributed as to how intelligence evolved.
Intelligent males, more attractive
Many studies on birds revolved around the notion that female birds favor male birds with vibrant feathers or stylish songs. A recent study claims that intelligence is preferred over such fancy features and skills.
In the first experiment conducted by Chen and colleagues, small budgerigars (Australian parrots) were observed inside their cages to test the hypothesis that intelligence might affect mate selection. To do that, they allowed each female budgerigars to choose among a pair of similarly-looking male budgerigars to interact with. The chosen males were called preferred whereas those that were not were referred to as the less-preferred. Next, they trained the less-preferred males into learning a skill that opens closed lids or boxes. They, then, allowed the female budgerigar to observe the less-preferred male demonstrate the skill. Consequently, almost all of the females changed their preference. They chose the less-preferred males over the initially preferred males.
To test if this preference was social rather than sexual, they conducted a second experiment with a similar experimental design but this time a female budgerigar was exposed to two females (instead of males). The results showed that none of the female budgerigars changed their preferences. [1, 3] Based on these experiments, the researchers concluded that the demonstration of cognitive skills altered mate preference but not necessarily social preference.
Video of the animal model, male budgerigar that learned a problem-solving skill that seemingly increased its attractiveness to females. [Credit: Hedwig Pöllöläinen].
Why did mate selection evolved? The answer could be associated with the species survival or longevity. Individuals must be able to stay in the mate selection pool, if not on top of it. In general, males deemed as superior or “preferred” will gain higher chances at mating, and thereby will have better opportunities at transmitting their genes as they dominate the access to fertile females. Females, on the other hand, gain an upper hand from the mate selection by being able to choose the seemingly finest among the rest. Females must choose. That is because they have a generally limited reproductive opportunity to give life to. Moreover, the energy that a female invests in producing an offspring is so great that it has to be worth it.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
1 Chen, J., Zou, Y., Sun, Y.-H., & ten Cate, C. (2019). Problem-solving males become more attractive to female budgerigars. Science, 363(6423), 166–167. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau8181
2 Jones, A. G., & Ratterman, N. L. (2009). Mate choice and sexual selection: What have we learned since Darwin? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(Supplement_1), 10001–10008. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0901129106
3 GrrlScientist. (2019, January 11). Problem-Solving Budgies Make More Attractive Mates. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/grrlscientist/2019/01/10/problem-solving-budgies-make-more-attractive-mates/#515f24d66407