Love-Life Lessons From the Animal Kingdom

The Animal Guide to Human Dating

Source Corbis

Why you should care

Because chickens, angelfish, and several other creatures can teach us a few things about dating and mating.

When she’s on a date, Jennifer Verdolin tries to think like a chicken. In the barnyard, a rooster might trumpet that he’s got food, but the ladies are quick to waddle away from the fakers. “The female hen is not going to spend a year and a half trying to figure out if this is the right rooster for her,” Verdolin says.

Verdolin may be a 40-something single professional, but she’s also an animal behaviorist researcher at Duke University with a new book, Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships, exploring what we humans could learn from the animal world when it comes to love.

A barnacle goose, for instance, doesn’t waste her precious time on the wrong gander, and we could all take a lesson from the cockatiels. Verdolin did.


It started after she split from her husband in 2009, when she looked at her study subjects and wondered if maybe they had something to teach her. “How is it that I made such a bad choice?” she recalls asking. “Do animals make these kind of bad choices, or do they do it right?”

She examined her love life, and the love lives of the creatures she studied (plus lots of others). From this hard-won knowledge, we present Verdolin’s top five dating tips, what the good research doctor likes to call her “Animal Pocket Guide to Dating.” 

Animal Pocket Guide to Dating

  1. Be choosy. Find your priorities and stick to them. Albatrosses date for years. Cockatiels sure look lovely, but even they focus on personality. Verdolin says she was always asking, “Is this the one?” Now she takes a longer view: Is this person compatible? “Maybe some of us do that already, but I kind of got there by looking at animals,” she says.
  2. Be honest. “Animals don’t really misrepresent themselves or their intentions in their mating situations,” Verdolin says. “Animals lie in their communication to fool others” — but not in love.  
  3. Stop second-guessing. “He’s just not that in to you” rules the roost too, so don’t wear yourself out trying to read between the lines. “Ales will bring gifts, they bring flowers, they dance, they bring food — they invest when they’re pursuing a female,” Verdolin says. So when the signs are telling you to move on? Get going. “Barnacle geese don’t worry ‘Is this the only barnacle goose for me?’” she says, and now neither does she. 
  4. Chemistry schmemistry. Love at first sight, eyes meet across the room … It means you’d make great babies, Verdolin says, but it’s just chemicals. “It doesn’t tell you anything about the potential for long-term success,” she says. In a study involving finches, a male with a blue feather drove all the lady finches gaga, but that didn’t make him a better catch. So tame those pheromones and ask: Will Mr. or Ms. Hotbody at the bar clean up the mess at 4 a.m. when the kid gets sick?
  5. Foolish hearts. Males of every species are more likely to bluff than females, Verdolin says. Take the rooster luring hens with food he doesn’t have. Or frogs that exaggerate their size. As soon as the jig is up, the ladies turn tail. Which is precisely the right response to Casanovas who talk too good a game. Verdolin mentioned a friend whose lover showered her with presents — for about six months. But when he regifted her a casino key chain on her birthday, she knew it was game over. “Animals don’t fool around,” Verdolin says.

Sure, it’s a jungle out there, but positive lessons abound too. Take the angelfish that mate for life. “Every time they come back together, they twirl around each other,” Verdolin says. “Every single day.”

And so, good readers, if you want to improve your relationships, don’t waste time and emotional energy on dead-end dates. Find someone who’s honest and trustworthy — and in it for the long haul. Avoid the blue-capped finch and make like a hen, and when you do find your match, try a little angelfish twirl when you come home from a long day’s work.


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