VALENTINE'S DAY SIGNALS THE END OF WINTER DORMANCY

by Whit Gibbons

February 8, 2015

Q: Is it coincidental that so many animals begin courtship around Valentine's Day or is there some significance to the seasonal timing?

A: A connection between Valentine's Day and spring mating rituals of some animals sounds like a romantic idea, but no valid relationship exists between our human celebration and the reproductive patterns among wild species. The origins of Valentine's Day celebrations, which now occur virtually worldwide, are disputed and almost certainly based on tales that qualify more as myth or fable than as documented events. For human beings, Valentine's Day is more or less an artificially created reason to have a celebration, and the idea has spread throughout the world.

Feb. 14, the date Americans have selected for a celebration of Cupid's matchmaking antics, happens to occur at a time when native wildlife species in the north temperate zone begin to reemerge after winter dormancy. The days have been getting longer since the darkest days leading to Dec. 21 and will continue to do so until June 21. More new-growth vegetation means food is available for herbivores of all sorts, from insects to mammals. And more food means more energy that can be devoted by females to production of young and by males for territorial pursuit of females. Courtship and mating occur throughout the year for some plants and animals, but the burgeoning resources associated with the advent of spring assures major activity. Valentine's Day is well-timed for the phenomenon.

Among many birds - from Florida northward, depending on the latitude - evidence of courtship can be seen around Valentine's Day. Male bluebirds begin to show a hint of the impressive plumage soon to come, and male goldfinches start changing from drab olive to stunning yellow. Male displays of breeding colors in some species might be considered the equivalent of brightly colored Valentine cards intended to appeal to the object of your affections.

A vivid display of Valentine red is found in male blue-tailed skinks. Juveniles have a metallic blue tail and bright yellow stripes, a color pattern that is found in a more subdued fashion in adult females. The males develop shiny, coppery brown bodies. In springtime, not too long after Valentine's Day, male broad-headed skinks begin their courtship. At this time the head and neck turn brilliant red, making them look rather like a Valentine heart moving through the forest.

Turtle biologists assume that all species have a ritualized courtship process that leads to the mating event itself, but courting behavior in the wild has been observed in only a small proportion of the world's turtles. Nonetheless, it assuredly happens even though we don't see it.

Turtle biologists have observed complex and intriguing courtship rituals in some species. Adult male painted turtles and slider turtles (including the common red-eared sliders often kept as pets) have elongated foreclaws used in an elaborate courtship behavior called "titillation."

During this remarkable ritual, the male extends his front feet and turns them so that the backs are touching. Then he vibrates his long claws in the water in front of the female. A female interested in mating will follow the male, who slowly swims backward. One of the best opportunities to observe the fascinating process of titillation is at a public aquarium in which freshwater turtles can be seen through glass in natural underwater settings.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson asserted that in spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. (So, too, do young women's thoughts, but since "Locksley Hall" was written in 1835, we'll let that slide.) For most forms of human behavior, an equivalent or near-equivalent can be found somewhere in the animal kingdom. Spring mating rituals among many animals prove that courting is no exception.

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