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Deceptive cads of the savanna: male topi antelopes will lie to keep ladies from leaving.

As any dating woman knows, men can be dogs--but a new study suggests that antelopes might be a better fit.

Male topi antelopes resort to deception to keep a potential mate around, snorting as if there's a lion nearby when it seems she might wander off. It's the first report of outright mate deception in an animal other than Homo sapiens, scientists report in the July American Naturalist.

Some birds will feign a broken wing to lure a predator away from their nest, and there are reports of male monkeys and squirrels deceiving other males in the heat of competition. But the male antelope behavior "is the clearest example of tactical deception between mates in animals other than humans," comments Cornell University's H. Kern Reeve, an expert in the evolution of cooperation and conflict in animal societies.

Study leader Jakob Bro-Jorgensen discovered the devious behavior while studying topi antelopes at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Female antelopes are sexually receptive for one day only, and they spend that day visiting several males, munching grass and mating.


Bro-Jorgensen noticed that when a female started to wander away from a male's territory, the male would look in the direction she was headed, prick his ears and snort loudly--the same snort the antelopes use when they notice a lion, leopard or other predator approaching.

"It was quite funny--it made me laugh," says Bro-Jorgensen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Liverpool in England. "It's such an obvious lie. Clearly there's no lion."

Suitors in nature often exaggerate their virtues. But this work documents a rare case in which evolution favors outright lying in the mating game, Reeve says. The cost of the lie is minimal to the male; he merely snorts. But the cost to the female of ignoring the lie could be great: If there truly is a predator nearby, she's dead.

Bro-Jorgensen and colleague Wiline Pangle of Ohio State University in Columbus first observed males when they were making honest snorts. Even when alone, male antelopes snorted when a human approached, suggesting that rather than being a warning to fellow antelopes, a true snort is directed at the predator itself.

This makes sense, says Bro-Jorgensen. If they have enough of a head start, topi antelopes can outrun lions and even cheetahs. By snorting at a cat who thinks it's hidden in the grass, an antelope says, "I see you predator. Give it up."

The researchers also recorded true and false snorts and played them back to female antelopes, to see if the ladies could tell the difference. Judging by their reactions, the females couldn't tell true from false snorts. The clincher that the males were lying to get lucky came from observations of the animals in action. A male antelope secured two to three more chances at mating with a restless female if he pulled the false-snort trick.

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Author:Ehrenberg, Rachel
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 19, 2010
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