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Q&A: What Animals Tell Us About Love and Dating

People looking for love may already feel like their dating lives are pretty wild.

But you may not know exactly how wild until you read Jennifer Verdolin‘s new book Wild Connection, which reveals how our relationships and courtships often mirror those of other species in the animal world. (Related: “Wild Romance: Weird Animal Courtship and Mating Rituals.”)

A photo of prairie chickens in mating ritual.
Prairie chickens perform a mating ritual in Cassoday, Kansas. Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic Creative

Take the prairie chicken. In an animal version of ladies’ night at a dance club, the males will congregate in front of females and put on elaborate moves and vocalizations—and will perform at these “nightclubs” for up to two months at a time. (Watch a video of prairie chicken mating rituals.)

The old advice that you should get to know someone before approaching her as a love interest? It pays off for baboons too. Among the chacma, yellow, and olive baboons, lower-ranking males will often befriend a female, protecting her from bullies and babysitting her offspring sired by dominant males. When it comes time to mate again, the baboon female will often choose her buddy, the lower-ranking male.

Verdolin, an animal-behavior expert at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina, says we can learn a lot from animals in our quest to find the ideal mate. We recently caught up with Verdolin to learn how her book came about.

What motivated you to write this?

I’m absolutely passionate about animals, and I’ve always wanted to give people a way to relate to animals. We can’t conserve things we don’t appreciate. That’s a basic motivation for everything I do, whether it’s in science or in writing. I thought of all of the ways in which animals have similar courtship and mating rituals and deal with the same problems that we deal with. For example, people might think, “Oh, wow, barnacle geese date many geese before they find their special goose”—it’s very similar to what we deal with.

I like how you integrate your personal experiences—especially with dating—in the book. What made you decide to take this approach?

As a scientist I do experiments all the time, so I took this scientific, objective approach to dating for a while. Every time I went on a date, I was taking the animal perspective. I didn’t intend to incorporate my personal experiences initially, but then the similarities and parallels were just so clear that it seemed wrong not to.

A photo of the book cover of "Wild Connection"
Photograph courtesy Prometheus Books, 2014

What are some of your favorite animal courtship or mating rituals?

Albatrosses, because they date for several years before picking their favorite. You hear the expression, “Something’s an albatross around your neck,” which is a negative connotation. Really, when it comes to love, they got it going on. They cozy up with each other, they develop their own special language … they have a very low divorce rate.  They embody this close bond. (Also see “Oldest Known Wild Bird Hatches Chick at 62.”)

I also like the sand-dwelling wolf spider. He gives up his home, or man cave, for the female. It’s described in Chapter 6, “The Choosy Bachelor.” Here’s this female who has to go into the man cave and wiggle her legs. If he likes how she does that, he gives up his home for her and puts himself at risk. There are a lot of examples where males are having to do everything to impress the females. I gave a few examples where the female has to do a little bit of work.

You mention in the book how males often have it tougher than we think, which seems counterintuitive from what we often hear. Can you explain more about that?

We don’t necessarily appreciate the risks that males are under. They have different kinds of social pressures. Many men I know define themselves by how much they can provide—that’s an intuitive biological behavior, since so many animal males provide for and protect their families. When a male isn’t able to do that, it can be very hard.

We never think about the fact that males are in intense competition with each other. Lastly, the testosterone load itself compromises their immune system, leading to shorter life-spans. In my approach to dating, I have developed a much deeper appreciation for the difficulties that males face.

How has writing the book changed how you interact with people?

Profoundly. The biggest change is that I’m really focused more on the person than what they’re thinking about me. I want to know, “Who is this person, and what kind of animal are they like?” If I want to be an albatross and you’re acting like an often-promiscuous squirrel, I’m not going to judge you anymore. (Also see “Owl Monkeys Shed Light on Evolution of Love.”)

I say, “I’m looking for an albatross, so I’m going to move on. But I wish you the best.” I’m much clearer about “This is what I want, this is where I’m going.” I’ve also learned that attraction is just one basic elemental thing—it really says nothing about the potential for a relationship.

Have you found an albatross yet?

No, not quite yet. I think it will get harder for me to date if the book becomes popular, especially since I’m on the D.L. Hughley Show with a segment called “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal,” where I give relationship advice from the animal perspective. Some people might think, “Wow, you have all the relationship answers.”

What do you want readers to take away from learning about animal relationships?

We share some common problems with animals when it comes to relationships, and sometimes there’s an animal analogue that gives us creative ideas and solutions. In the book I use so many different animals because our species has so much variation—not only in appearance but also behavior. (See “True Love: Surprising Photos of Animal Affection.”)

For instance, cardinal males are red, and they don’t look very different from each other. Whereas in people there’s so much variation, there really is someone out there for you. We should appreciate that variation—that goes for everything from appearance to how monogamous you are. Knowing yourself and what’s important to you might give you some more success.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 Tell us: What animal are you?