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Dress to impress: Sexual selection and birds of paradise


There are an estimated 42 species of bird of paradise in New Guinea, and they all look completely different.

Females choose mates based on the condition and colour of the males’ plumage, so males puff their feathers, vibrate and buzz to attract their attention. Some even transform their bodies into strange, geometrical abstractions. If successful, these aesthetically pleasing features will be passed down to the next generation, process known as sexual selection.

On an island with very few predators, you don’t compete for resources. You compete for mates.

The majority of birds of paradise are sexual dimorphic and polygamous (males with the spectacular plumage that has come to typify the Paradisaeidae family, and females with a more conservative look of lackluster grays and browns). But not all of them look as surprisingly different, and those that don’t tend to be monogamous. Apparently, their diets are not as rich as those of the colourful species, so male and female must both help finding food. This leaves no time for complex courtships.

The dances the male birds of paradise perform evolve over time according to the tastes of the females. Unfortunately, there are trends as well: If a dance routine becomes too commonplace, females lose interest.

Some quick facts about birds of paradise:

  • Carola’s Parotia bird of paradise performs some of the most complex courtship dances in the animal kingdom.
  • The Greater bird of paradise was named Paradisaea apoda (“footless bird-of-paradise”) because feet had been removed from the first specimens that arrived in 16th-century Europe.
  • There are a number of hybrid birds of paradise due to crossbreeding between distinct species.
  • A male Raggiana bird of paradise is featured on the New Guinean national flag.

Photograph by Tim Laman, from National Geographic’s Paradise Found collection (more photos and videos here):


UX Designer and Anthropologist, hardcore gamer, obsessive reader and improvised artificer of crafts. I cheated on population genetics with graphic design and since that the three of us have been living happily ever after. I enjoy writing little pieces on practically anything that catches my eye, but I lean towards those occasions when art overlaps with science.

One comments on “Dress to impress: Sexual selection and birds of paradise
  1. Birds of paradise, The big passion of David Attenborough! They are bizarre, beautiful and do some astonishing things. It blows my mind every time:


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