Vail Daily column: ‘Costly signaling’ versus foreplay |

Vail Daily column: ‘Costly signaling’ versus foreplay

Robert Valko
Dear Darwin
Vail, CO Colorado

Is there such a thing as a smooth-operating blue crab or a Casanova Komodo dragon? Are males of other species also affectionate? You be the judge.

Male blue crabs, with their sensual exoskeletons, really impress the babes when they waddle toward them, peering through the business-end of one of their claws. Maybe they’re using it as a viewfinder to get a lock on potential sugar-mamas. Once a fellow hard-body is locked in his sights, he moves in and they caress bodies, well, clang actually. If she doesn’t shoe him away, they prepare to play bumper cars. During the clanging process, the male will carry her for 2 to 7 days.

See guys, we have it pretty good after all.

And what about those love birds that wiggle the tips of their wings together as they skip across the water with “On the Wings of Love” blasting from Marshall Stacks-big concert speakers? Western Grebes, as they’re called, are native to Colorado and execute their mating rituals in ponds. They obviously got the idea after watching newlyweds do their celebratory dances in Aspen and Vail.

Then there is the garden snail. Males encircle the female for 15 minutes to six hours. During that time, they waggle tentacles and bite lips. The process culminates in the ejection of a “love dart.” Tentacle waggling is really big in Europe and New York right now.

And we certainly can’t forget Emperor penguins. They typically kick off the mating games by standing chest to chest and singing “You’re the Wind Beneath my Flippers.” Their flippers tremble with glee as they gear up to populate the planet with pint-sized fuzz-balls. Their courtship ritual actually consists of standing chest to chest, bowing and “bugling” to each other.

Ever seen the mating dance of the Laysan Albatross? These birds commit Michael Jackson’s entire dance routine to memory, most likely to ensure that their mates don’t have Alzheimer’s. Actually, this may not be far from the truth. The ostentatious dances are a product of what’s known as “hard-to-fake” behavior or, “costly signaling.” Potential mates who can’t perform these difficult sequences probably don’t have good genes.

Some of these antics above are the product of costly signaling while others fall into the category of good old fashioned foreplay.

In a 1984 study of sexual preferences, women rated foreplay as the most important component of a sexual encounter, while men rated the other big event as most important. Women also reported that they wanted to spend more time on foreplay and after-play than men did. Why would evolution have crafted such different baby-producing criteria for women and their counterparts, members of the species Homo-not-so-sapient-and-done-in-30-seconds?

Foreplay may have evolved in humans along with a number of other species because it provides a “window” through which females can assess males. The male ancestor who demonstrated signs of patience, gentleness and tenderness was probably in it for the long haul. In particular, he was more likely to stay with a particular woman and help take care of the children. His bedside manner also doubled as a trace display of his temperament – his capacity to nurture children.

In addition, our distant ancestors did not have the luxury of the spoken word to communicate their procreative intentions. They communicated mostly with their eyes, gestures and hands. The absence of words meant that attempts at intimacy were probably originated by touch. Things are much different now. Al Bundy types can hook up big speakers to their 1980 Escorts and shout: “Hey babe, we’ll be back to pick you up later on,” as they drive by.

Robert Valko is a graduate of Northwestern University. E-mail him with new topic ideas at

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