OCTOBER
2009

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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10-22-09

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Butterfly Version of Reality TV's "The Bachelorette"

From 1965 until 1973 ABC television aired a show called "The Dating Game." The show was based on the idea of having an eligible female "bachelorette" select a man for a date from among three candidates. The bachelorette and her selection then went on a date, compliments of ABC.

The men were screened from the view of the bachelorette. She had to base her selection on the sound of voices and answers to her questions. Rules for the show stated that there were a few questions that could not be asked: for instance, age or how much money the potential dates earned.

"The Dating Game" was a very popular show during its nearly 8-year run and was resurrected during the 1980s. Throughout the history of the show several people, who are now well known, appeared as bachelorettes or potential dates. That list includes Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Suzanne Somers, Steve Martin, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson, Sally Field, Oprah Winfrey and Jim Carrey.

The concept of the show appeared again during the 1990s as "The Bachelorette," but this time the stakes were higher -- the bachelorette wasn't just selecting someone for a date; she was picking a husband! At least that is how the show was touted. So far, only the first bachelorette has managed to tie the knot with her reality TV show selection.

Mate selection is not just a human thing. Far from it. While animals don't have such things as dating and matchmakers, they do frequently play a mating game. Butterflies, for instance. Butterflies find mates in much the same way demonstrated on "The Bachelorette" TV show. In both cases it is the female who makes the mate selection. As biologists are fond of saying, "In the animal mating game, it is the male that pursues, it is the female that selects!"

So how does female mate selection work in the butterflies? It goes something like this. First, many male butterflies are attracted to moving objects that are about the size of his species. A falling leaf or a piece of paper carried by the wind would attract the attention of a male butterfly interested in finding a mate. If the object turns out to be a female of his species, the male will begin displaying courtship behaviors.

Butterfly courtship behavior of the male normally begins with the release of pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that other members of the species can smell and that elicit certain behaviors on the part of the receiving animal. Pheromones could be called chemical messengers. For instance, some pheromones are called alarm pheromones because they will cause the animal to flee from danger, or in the case of honey bees to attack and sting. Ants use such chemicals to mark trails to and from food sources.

In the insect world pheromones are widely used by the Lepidoptera, the butterflies and the moths, as mate attractants. In moths it is the female of the species that commonly produces pheromones. The female moth will release the pheromone in a process named "calling" by scientists. Male moths will detect the pheromone and follow the scent toward the source, which in this case is a female moth in search of a mate.

However, in butterflies the male and female roles are often reversed, and it is the male that produces the pheromone. But the function is still the same: to attract members of the opposite sex, the females of the butterfly set.

It has been shown that humans also produce chemicals that function as pheromones. But we prefer to wash off our natural pheromones and replace them with "store-bought" odors that we call perfumes. But I digress.

The butterfly courtship frequently involves male butterflies pursuing female butterflies in an upward, spiraling dance. Sometimes several male butterflies will be engaged in the pursuit of a single female. Each of the males is releasing pheromones and jostling with other males in an effort to get closest to the female.

Ultimately, in the butterfly mating game the guy that wins the girl is the strongest with the best odor! Who says "The Bachelorette" and reality TV in general has anything on nature?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox