Love is in the air this spring — and it isn't just Chattanooga's human population coming out of hibernation in search of a bae.
All throughout the Chattanooga Zoo, the city's wildlife inhabitants are feeling fiesty, too. While humans feel the need to download dating apps and dust off neglected pickup lines, members of the local animal kingdom score hookups using the most powerful tool at their disposal: instinct.
"It is in our very basic nature to reproduce," says Emma DuBose, primary keeper of small mammals at the Chattanooga Zoo. "I think it might make us feel a little bit better if we just realized what it is about our biology that makes us do that — to go back to those animal roots."
With that goal in mind, we bring you a rom-com of sorts about the strange ways nature seals the deal for other creatures with crushes. Their moves reveal some of the ways humans' modern dating culture still mirrors Mother Nature's mating manual, while also reminding us how far we've evolved past choosing life partners based on the size of their tail feathers. For the most part, at least.
HOW I MET YOUR MACAW
He likes bird seed. She eats like a bird.
On paper, they're a match made in heaven. There's just one problem: The star-crossed parrots are from two different worlds.
Or, to be more accurate, two different species.
Those who frequent the Chattanooga Zoo may think they know all there is to know about its scarlet macaw, aptly named Red, and her longtime roommate Ralph, a blue-and-gold macaw. But unbeknownst to most who catch the duo engaged in seemingly innocuous play, the parrots have been cuddle buddies on the downlow for longer than DuBose can remember.
Each fall, the parrots can be found grooming one another's incoming feathers, removing the waxy sheath on each new feather so it can unfurl and grow. The act of service, called allopreening, provides sweet relief from the itchiness the prickly new appendages often cause, providing a clever excuse for the birds to get handsy.
Over the autumn months, as the PDA intensifies, Ralph occasionally invites Red over for a home-cooked meal. Like a true gentleman, Ralph even spares his dinner guest the trouble of chewing, swallowing the grub himself and then regurgitating it into her mouth.
"They'll kind of lock beaks and do this sort of back-and-forth dance. And macaws are very vocal, so they make a lot of purring, cooing noises to each other," DuBose says, adding with a laugh, "It's all very disgusting."
The saucy show of affection is a trial run for the days to come, assuring Red that her hubby can put breadcrumbs on the table once she finds herself sitting on eggs.
Alas, though, that level of domesticity was never meant for these two.
Though different species, the macaws are capable of mating and producing offspring — which they do — but allowing them to create an interspecies hybrid is frowned upon by many aviculturists who believe such pairings muddy the birds' bloodlines. Moreover, there is limited space available at the zoo, which has acquired most of its birds from owners no longer able to provide adequate care for the creatures, DuBose says.
"It would be really irresponsible on our part to breed them just for the sake of having babies," she explains.
No one's had the heart to break the news to Ralph and Red just yet. The keepers avoid the awkward conversation each winter by sneaking past a newly territorial Ralph to swap out the two to four eggs in Red's nest with dummy eggs. The ruse allows the love birds to shack up and play house until they've completed the nesting cycle, which, if disturbed, could damage the birds' mental health, DuBose notes.
Eventually, the relationship's magic wears off — most likely because of the difference in species, the keeper speculates.
While mated macaws of the same species show each other affection when not giving in to the call of the wild, Ralph and Red are usually quite sick of playing house by summer, DuBose says. Though the parted lovers still spend time together, they become irritated by each other easily, and noisily compete for attention from the keepers (just to make the other jealous, we're sure).
Still, DuBose believes separating the birds could lead to depression and anxiety because of their bond. But she's also fairly certain that Red would dump Ralph in a heartbeat if a scarlet suitor from her own species appeared to sweep her off her feet.
YOU SSSSTILL UP?
Most species of snakes don't need thumbs to swipe right when hookup season starts; the reptiles have been using scent to update their status to "single" since, like, 10 whole iPhone upgrades ago. Maybe more.
When a female is single and ready to mingle, she releases pheromones to let the males in her area know she is good to go. If her sweet aroma of seduction causes more than one bachelor to slither over, the contenders will engage in a non-lethal duel complete with shoving, wrestling and other classic displays of machismo to establish dominance. The winner gets to show the lady a good time.
Up North, though, things tend to get a little kinky.
"Up in Canada, the garter snakes during the spring are known for these huge [communal mating sessions] where thousands of thousands of garter snakes are just in these mating balls," Ryan Witmer, ectotherm keeper at Chattanooga Zoo, says with a fascinated grin. "You should check a picture on that. It's pretty neat."
THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX
For fennec foxes, mating is not such a pleasurable experience.
Each winter, the foxes mate using the same copulatory tie common among domestic dogs, who may remain fastened in the back-to-back position for about 20 minutes, DuBose says.
Unlike their canine cousins, however, the fennecs can remain locked to their mates for anywhere from 2-3 hours, causing pain and discomfort for both animals as they twist uncomfortably and drag each other around in an awkward struggle for control until the male is able to march in his troops.
No, the art of subtlety is not among the gifts in the foxes' otherwise impressive skill set.
"It's kind of an awkward situation when kids are watching and they're like 'What?!'" laughs DuBose, who typically addresses the inquiry by stating that the animals are mating, then hands the baton to the parents so they can explain as much or as little as they'd prefer. For the most part, she adds, the grown-ups handle the situation like pros.
"I actually do think most parents get a kick out of it, like 'What do you think about that, Billy?'" DuBose laughs. "I don't think it's poorly received. Most say, 'We're here at the zoo; what do you expect?' or 'Animals will be animals.'"
As for the fennecs themselves, the resilient little champs are quick to make up for their performance issues by serving as devoted partners and fathers. The foxes mate for life and scavenge diligently to satisfy any food cravings their special lady might have while prepping the nursery den for the soon-coming litter.
WHO RUNS THE WORLD? GIRLS.
When it comes to consent, Komodo dragon ladies don't play.
The mating process starts with a male chasing down the apple of his eye to show that he's fit enough to breed, followed by some rather seductive tongue flicks around her neck to get his conquest in the mood.
Should the female not be receptive to her suitor's advances, however, she is quick to make her distaste known.
"She fights back," Witmer says. "I've heard of wounds where the female doesn't want to breed, so she cuts into him. It can be a little violent."
Unfortunately, it isn't unusual for both parties to sustain wounds while the lady dragon teaches her rejectee that 'no means no.'
Luckily, Mother Nature has cooked up a scheme to make sure Komodo girls don't need no man. According to researchers, Indonesian female Komodos can breed without the benefit of masculine companionship. The natural phenomenon, called parthenogenesis, ensures that the species will survive, even if isolated on an island. The only downside is that, thanks to a fluke of biology, all the offspring will be male.
Oh, well. Evolution will get it right eventually.