Study reveals tale of peacock’s fan

26 Jul

Peahen with eye-tracking camera

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Lead researcher Jessica Yorzinski explains what the study revealed

Scientists in the US have used eye-tracking cameras to work out exactly what peahens find alluring in a peacock’s tail fan.

The male birds grow their trains of iridescent feathers during the mating, or lekking, season, fanning them out and rattling them to attract a mate.

This team of biologists fitted peahens with eye-trackers to find out what they looked at during this display.

Their results are reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The eye-tracking footage revealed how difficult it is to keep a peahen’s attention, which helps explain why such a large and elaborately decorated tail fan evolved.

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Charles Darwin on sexual selection

“I can see no good reason to doubt that female birds, by selecting, during thousands of generations, the most melodious or beautiful males, according to their standard of beauty, might produce a marked effect.

I strongly suspect that some well-known laws with respect to the plumage of male and female birds, in comparison with the plumage of the young, can be explained on the view of plumage having been chiefly modified by sexual selection, acting when the birds have come to the breeding age or during the breeding season; the modifications thus produced being inherited at corresponding ages or seasons, either by the males alone, or by the males and females; but I have not space here to enter on this subject.”

Charles R Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859

The peacock’s tail is probably the most famous example of sexual selection – a phenomenon identified by Charles Darwin whereby animals evolve a trait because it is attractive to the opposite sex.

“There are quite a few species that have these elaborate colourful traits that don’t serve any survival function,” explained Dr Jessica Yorzinski, who carried out this research project while based at the University of California Davis and Duke University in North Carolina.

“[This long train] might actually make it very difficult to get away from a predator.”

To find out why the peacock’s train is quite so cumbersome and elaborate, the scientists set out to understand what it takes to impress a peahen.

“I wanted to know what it was the females attended to when they were evaluating potential mates,” explained Dr Yorzinski.

The researchers trained 12 peahens to wear eye-tracking equipment. This consisted of two tiny cameras on a head mount. One recorded the scene in front of the bird and the other recorded eye movement.

“We were surprised by the results,” said Dr Yorzinski.

Rather than looking up at the high crescent of the fan above the peacock’s head, the eye-trackers revealed that females looked primarily at the lower portions of the train.

“From the head down was where most of their gaze was directed,” said Dr Yorzinski.

“The peahens often looked from side-to-side across the bottom portion of the train, suggesting that they were gauging the width of the train.”

‘Selective attention’

The experiments showed that females constantly shifted their attention between the environment and the peacock’s tail.

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?Start Quote

Peacock displaying its tail fan

If females are not alert and focus completely on a displaying male, they may end up as a tiger’s dinner?

End Quote Jessica Yorzinski Lead researcher

“It is likely beneficial for them to divide their attention among potential mates and the environment,” explained Dr Yorzinski.

“If females are not alert and focus completely on a displaying male, they may end up as a tiger’s dinner.”

The research suggests that the peacock’s tail has had to evolve to eclipse all the other things competing for a female’s attention.

It also raised the question of why the tail fans are held so high if the females focus most of their attention on the lower portion.

Dr Yorzinski has an explanation for this too. In their natural habitat in India, the vegetation is very high. “All you can see [of the peacock] is the upper train,” she said.

“So we think it’s a long-distance signal to the hen.”

Prof Tim Birkhead, a bird expert from the University of Sheffield, said the research was “very exciting”, adding: “It is a wonderfully novel approach.”


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