With divorce rates in the United States skyrocketing to almost 50% of marriages, it’s easy to lose faith in the sanctity of long-term love. But before you give up hope on all that matrimony, here’s a few non-human animals setting an incredible example of what it means to be dedicated to your chosen mate – rain, hail, or death by long-line.
South-east Asia’s gibbons form extremely rare pair bonds and are the next nearest relatives to humans who mate for life. Gibbons exhibit low sexual dimorphism (where males and females are relatively the same size) meaning positive gender equality is rife in the gibbons communities. Paired gibbons will spend hours grooming one another and often sit together perched high in the tree tops, overseeing other gibbons and animals from their perch in the canopy. New studies, however, show that males gibbons are now more prone to philandering, even sometimes dumping their mate for a new partner.
Swans, too, form monogamous pair bonds lasting many years – and in some cases, for life. A swan’s loyalty to their chosen mate is so romantically embossed that the heart shape formed by two swan’s necks intertwined has become a world wide symbol for love. In some cases, swans may “divorce”, usually following problematic nesting failures. If a mate dies, or is killed by a predator, the remaining mate will take up with another; if all goes well in the pairing, they will stay together for life.
Unlike humans, not all animal species find themselves unlucky in love. Semi-balding, wrinkled black vultures too mate for life, and are so protective of their chosen love that scientists have discovered a normalcy of attacks by vultures on other black vultures who have been caught philandering, or, straying from their mate. Also known as the American black vulture, black vultures do not possess a syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – and instead depend on grunts and low hisses to vocalise and attract a suitor.
One large fish that loves the company of another is the French angelfish who lives, travels and hunts in pairs with their chosen pair-fish. Their bonds are so special they often last the length of their lives, and in some cases, after one pair-fish dies, the remaining angel may chose memorial solitude, preferring to be lonely in love than with a new mate – feasting only on sponges and algae for one.
On the contraries to their portrayal in the media, wolves live out a complex family life to rival even the closet of human family knits. As social creatures, wolves in a wolf pack consist of mated pairs and dependents – mothers, fathers, and their offspring – much like a traditional nuclear family. Loyalty in a wolf pack can be tested, and if one of the mated pair dies, a new pair is quickly re-established. And since males often predominate in any given wolf population, unpaired females are a particular rarity. In the instance that a young male cannot find a mate, he will seek unpaired daughters from surrounding – or, rival – wolf packs, becoming known as a “Casanova wolf”, or, a male who wilfully does not form a pair bond.
A young Australian photographer on Mawson’s Base in the Australian Antarctic territory once wrote of a lone albatross who quietly joined him in the shrub as he sat and read a manifesto. The photographer noted the sad demeanour of “‘tross” and attributed this to one very common trait in these endangered sea birds: loneliness. The bird’s life-long mate had died, never returning to mate with him from a long flight to find food during the Antarctic summer. Caught in long-lines or dying of exhaustion, the passed albatross had widowed her mate who now lived in a state of perpetual longing. Despite flying great distances, an albatross will always return to the same place, and the same mate, to breed. Their special bonds last a lifetime.
When they’re not busy malfunctioning the very foundations of your wooden home structure, termites are seeking their special male or female in their own tragic tale of Romeo & Juliet. In some termite ant colonies, a queen ant mates once with the male, or males, storing the gametes for life, while the male ant dies shortly thereafter having never mated again. In other colonies, termites form more symbiotic lifelong bonds with a female “queen” and single male “king”, who go on to give birth to their entire kingdom.
The national emblem for the United States, bald eagles, could too be a universal emblem for long time love. Maintaining pair bonds that last up to twenty-five years after sexual maturity, bald eagles mate for life, preening and loving each other for decades, except in the instances of death or impotency. One cause of impotency amongst bald eagles is shooting, both accidental and non accidental, from local bird hunters.
Antarctica’s supply of penguins often mate for life, though some species prefer to mate exclusively for one season before finding a different match. Emperor penguins, the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species, are the only penguin species to breed during the Antarctic winter, trekking over the ice to the breeding colonies where the female will lay a single egg, incubated by the male, while she returns to the sea to feed.
Of a less romantic dedication are otters, who, despite misinformation, only mate exclusively for five consecutive days (sometimes for a fortnight) before leaving behind their pair in the search for bluer seas. In most cases, it is the female otter who drives away the male, usually before her cubs are born, forcing the males into solitary for most of the year. Young females leave their mothers and the holt after one year, reaching sexual maturity at age two, whilst males find their sexual maturity at age three. Occasionally, previous mates will find each other again to mate in subsequent years.
Elissa Sursara is a wildlife expert, journalist and National Geographic contributor working on behalf of endangered species, threatened habitats and all animals in crisis. She began her professional career in 2010 as a field researcher working with big game, small game, migratory birds and apex predators. She is the ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, 1% for the Planet, Australia Zoo, Wildlife Warriors and a WSPA Australia Voice of Influence. Find Elissa on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube or subscribe to her website.