Allison Cook

How These Unique and Endangered Species Find Mates 

Elephants, tigers and narwhals – oh my! We’re in the throes of the season of love and the resulting spring babies will soon be soaring above, flitting from flower to flower, hopping about or emerging from their winter dens.  

The animal kingdom is filled with a wonderful variety of mates. Some are fleeting partners only coming together to do their duty to future generations, while others stay together for life. The five animals we explore this heart-shaped month all have different social structures and unique approaches to finding their mates, so let's get down to the animal facts of life. 

Elephants 

African savanna, African forest and Asian elephants all exhibit similar social structures. Adult males, known as bulls, live in bachelor herds or are solitary. Adult females and their offspring live in matriarchal herds.  

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2009.12.18 - African Elephants - South Africa - Charles J. Sharp (CC BY 3.0 DEED)
Image Credit
Charles J. Sharp (CC BY 3.0 DEED)
A female and male African elephant starting a mating ritual in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. Credit: Charles J. Sharp (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

When bulls are ready to mate, they undergo a period known as musth. This time is marked by behavioral changes including increased aggression, ear waving and urinating. As a musth male flaps his ears, he wafts his scent in hopes of attracting receptive females. The competition to mate is fierce among bulls, but a younger male will often back off before anyone gets hurt. 

Females will vocalize a specific call when they are receptive. Other elephants can hear it from about two and half miles away, but a human ear cannot detect this sound at all. 

Once the two elephants find one another, the female will temporarily separate from her herd. The male will smell her for a specific pheromone that confirms she is receptive. If she is, the two elephants will rub against each other and wrap trunks in a display of courtship. 

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African Elephant Graphic - Love is Love

Tigers 

Tigers are solitary except when courting, mating or raising cubs. The exact months these large cats reproduce can vary but is often during colder months. Females are receptive to a mate every three to nine weeks for few days.  

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2014.12.18 - Amur Tigers - France - Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)
Image Credit
Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)
Captive Amur tigers grooming each other in a zoo in Besançon, France. Credit: Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED) 

Receptive females scent-mark with a special, fragranced urine and frequent vocalizations. Usually, a male with overlapping or neighboring territory will seek out the receptive female. Once together, the two will circle around one another and vocalize. Sometimes the male will hang around for a few days, mating several times with the female. Other times he will leave after initial mating is complete. It is not uncommon for female tigers to show aggression toward males.  

Honeybees 

Bees live in a hive dominated by a queen. Worker bees are all females. They build, clean and feed the hive, and care for the queen and her offspring. Male bees, or drones, have one purpose: to reproduce with a queen. They do not do much other than eat and wait. When the mating season arrives, they will leave the hive for a drone congregation site and begin their mating pursuit when a virgin queen takes flight. 

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2015.03.06 - Honey Bees - Marisa Lubeck/USGS
Image Credit
Marisa Lubeck/USGS
The queen bee marked in yellow is surrounded by her colony. Credit: Marisa Lubeck/USGS

Virgin queen honeybees take their mating flight between 6 and 16 days old. They may take a few short practice flights to strengthen their wings and avoid rainy conditions, but otherwise there is nothing to hold them back from fulfilling their destiny. A virgin queen will fly high and fast. Only the fittest drones will reach her and succeed in breeding. Honeybee queens will mate with six to 24 drones during a mating flight. Their interaction lasts less than five seconds and successful drones die shortly after. 

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Honeybee Graphic _Catch the Buzz

Bald Eagles 

Bald eagles are both solitary and monogamous, so they will reunite with the same partner year after year to breed. Upon reuniting, the pair can be seen engaging in several courtship displays. They vocalize and lean into one another. One popular display, known as talon-grappling, involves two eagles locking talons in the sky and tumbling downwards in a cartwheel-like motion. The birds will usually release just before hitting the ground. While this behavior is often associated with mating, recent observations have noted unpaired birds of various ages and sexes performing this aerial dance.  

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2021.04.07 - Bald Eagles - Eric Ellingson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
Image Credit
Eric Ellingson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
Two bald eagles lock talons in the air. Credit: Eric Ellingson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED) 

When it comes to building nests, bald eagles are a power-couple! They build the largest bird nests in North America, measuring up to six feet wide and four feet deep. Pairs may return to the same nest each year and add to it, making it even larger. 

Bald eagles will stay with their mate “until death do they part.” In the occasional circumstance where one mate dies early, the living bird may find a new mate. 

Narwhals 

Found in Arctic waters nearly on top of the globe, narwhals remain quite mysterious. Scientists have observed them traveling in groups, or pods, which seem to be divided by age and sex. Females travel together with their young, while young males swim together and separately from the mature males.  

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2019.06.05 - Narwhal pod - Russia - Press Service of Gazprom Neft PJSC (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).jpg
Image Credit
Press Service of Gazprom Neft PJSC (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)
A pod of narwhals swimming near Franz Josef Land. Credit: Press Service of Gazprom Neft PJSC (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED) 

How they court and mate largely remains a mystery under the sea ice. However, research around their long, recognizable tusks has revealed they may help males attract mates and be used in establishing dominance.  

Author

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A Cook Headshot

Allison Cook

Content Writer

Areas of Expertise: Communications, writing for the blog and website

Allison joined Defenders of Wildlife in 2023 after working for Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation

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