Intentional Deception by Male Antelopes (for Sex!)

It appears male topi antelopes in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve improve their chances of having sex with female antelopes by tricking them—using the snort that signals a predator is nearby. (Both female and male antelopes snort when they see a predator to tell the predator it has been spotted and should go away, since it cannot outrun an antelope over long distances.) Here’s the really fascinating thing: The male topi antelope almost exclusively issues “false” alarms in the presence of a female antelope in heat—and when it appears she’s about to leave his territory. The male will snort while looking in the direction she’s headed, making her think she’s going toward the danger. As Wiline Pangle, a visiting scholar at Ohio State University, explains in a write-up of the research:

It’s almost amusing to us. The female hears the snort and thinks, ‘oops, there is a lion.’ She steps back, and the male comes around and mates. It’s striking.

On average, the researchers say, the males earn nearly three additional mating opportunities by using a false snort to delay a female’s departure from their territory. For their part, the females are in heat for only one day a year—which may help explain why they don’t catch on to the deceptive behavior. Plus, they’re safer erring on the side of caution, given the high potential cost of thinking a “true” alarm is “false.”
The researchers conclude in their paper that:

Although firm statements about intentions behind behaviors are notoriously difficult to make, our study does identify a parallel between animals and humans in their capability of using false signaling to deceive mates, a finding that hints that their communication may be less fundamentally different than widely assumed.

Category: Animal Studies

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  1. […] intentionality in animals, including when they communicate. There have been studies other than ours, although mostly anecdotal, that report deception in animals (we’ve summarized the clearest […]

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