Attractive Male Turkeys Employ Dowdy Wingmen to Lure in Females

First Posted: Aug 16, 2013 03:16 PM EDT

Having a good wingman could mean the difference between attracting a girl and going home alone. And apparently, turkeys have figured that out. These birds work in pairs to find the perfect mate, though in the end only one of them gets lucky.

Males and females in many animals show profound differences in how they look and act. For example, male pheasants have brightly colored plumage while females are a more dowdy brown. Yet within each sex, individuals often show a range of differences. For example, females may possess traits that make them more feminine or males may possess traits that may make them more masculine. This range in traits, though, generally puzzles researchers. After all, evolutionary logic would dictate that every individual would want to be as attractive as possible to the opposite sex.

Now, though, researchers may have found a reason for this range of traits--at least among wild turkeys. Male turkeys come in two different morphs; dominant males show an exaggeration of male traits in the form of head coloration and snood length. Subordinate males, in contrast, are far less ornate and seem to fade into the background when it comes to attracting females.

These more dour males have an important role to play in the mating process, though. They work with their flashier brothers, seeking out females. Once they find a prospective mate, the designated "wingman" will lure her in toward his dominant brother. If successful, the male will mate with her. This will potentially further the submissive turkey's own genes indirectly through his sibling's.

The findings reveal a little bit more about the differences in the way genes are expressed in the turkey genome. While dominant males were both masculinized and defeminized, it turns out that attractiveness in turkeys is more a function of how they use their genes rather than differences in the genes themselves. The study shows that it's not always what you have, but how you use them.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

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