Saturday, August 1, 2009

Displacement Behavior

In her recent post, Kay described how conflicted males feel when courting females and how they do what we call "approach-avoid" ("I want you...but I'm scared of you...but you're cute....but also dangerous..."). I once watched a male hyena approach-avoid a female for literally half an hour. He would take two steps toward her, then freak out and back up as if he had hit an invisible wall. Then a minute later, he would shuffle forward again, only to hit the wall and reverse. This went on and on. The best part? The female was facing the other way, sleeping, and had no idea it was even happening. My heart really went out to that guy.

One other way this conflict is expressed is through "displacement behavior," which is when a motivational conflict in an individual results in a behavior that is completely irrelevant to any of the potential goals. The best example I can think of is how when I was an undergrad and had a big exam coming up, I wanted to do well—that's one motivation—so I needed to study, but I also wanted to be rested—that's the other motivation—so I needed to sleep. What I would actually do was clean my room, which clearly accomplishes neither goal—classic displacement behavior. Curiously, now that I'm a grad student, my displacement-behavior-of-choice has morphed into baking. Whenever I have a bazillion papers to grade, for some reason I decide that that's the appropriate time to try a new recipe for peanut-butter fudge brownies.

Okay, tangent over, back to the hyenas and THEIR displacement behaviors. So when males are doing the approach-avoid thing, it's very common for them to stop and begin vigorously grooming themselves, particularly the forelegs. Recently, we watched as a male pursued a female who was in estrus for over an hour, trying to get up his courage to copulate with her. He would scurry up behind her and just when it looked like he would mount her, he would chicken out and begin grooming his forelegs. During the course of this saga, he stopped to groom his forelegs a whopping thirty-six times(!!) before finally successfully copulating with the female. I think by that point he had the cleanest feet in the Mara.


Dan said...

Peanut-butter fudge brownies for the win!

Pyro said...

Ha ha ha sounds like me during my undergraduate years. Had to write programs and essays on them and ended up reorganizing my room :P

I really feel for hyena males. Poor buggers really do have a tough time with the ladies.

Do male and females mate with the same partner over time or do they always vary who they mate with?

Leslie said...

Both males and females are promiscuous in this species. In fact, in litters with more than one cub, there are multiple sires approximately 35% of the time. So cubs that we call "twins" because they were born in the same litter might actually only be half-siblings. Over long periods of time, we see surprisingly low repeat-paternity within one female's cubs. All this implies that there is a lot of heavy competition between males when it comes to achieving reproductive success...which is the subject of two of my dissertation chapters, so hopefully more info to come on this!

Anonymous said...

Digs showed no such approach-avoidance conflicts when visiting Miss Hattie!

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