Lyrebirds mimic sounds of predators to coerce females into sex: research

New research has revealed male lyrebirds mimic the sounds of predators to coerce the female of the species into sex. Picture: Alex Maisey
New research has revealed male lyrebirds mimic the sounds of predators to coerce the female of the species into sex. Picture: Alex Maisey

They've been known to imitate the sounds of kookaburras, cockatoos, even human sounds like car alarms and chainsaws.

But new research has revealed a second, more sinister type of mimicry carried out by male lyrebirds: imitating the sounds of other predators in order to coerce the female of the species into sex.

While male lyrebirds have been known to produce elaborate mating calls, a team at the Australian National University has discovered the birds use a secondary call during sex as a means of deception.

The male lyrebirds use a technique called mixed-species mobbing flocks to simulate the sounds of multiple predators to trick females into thinking it's unsafe in other environments and to stay with the male.

The research found the sounds were made if a female tried to leave the male without mating, or as a way to extend the act itself.

Lead author Dr Anastasia Dalziell said the male lyrebirds used the mobbing flocks as a sensory trap.

"Mimicking when the female attempts to leave may be a bit like saying 'it's dangerous outside, stay', while mimicking during copulation could extend the duration, like saying 'freeze', making sure the sperm is transferred," Dr Dalziell said.

"The context is that the male is trying to stop her from ending the sexual interaction too early."

As part of the mobbing flocks, the male lyrebirds were found to imitate the sounds of multiple species at once. Dr Dalziell said while researchers had originally intended to observe lyrebirds in the wild, they were surprised by the mobbing flocks technique.

"It was completely unexpected to have these sort of observations and it was difficult to explain at first," she said. "There wasn't a lot out there in terms of other species to help with the understanding, because most birds don't make any sounds during copulation."

While the researchers initially thought the technique might have been a one-off occurrence, sightings of the birds around the Blue Mountains in NSW confirmed that it was more common than first thought.

"Before copulation, the male is producing his pre-mating display, which is a fantastic, coordinated song and dance display and he sings an original song with no mimicry," Dr Dalziell said.

"As soon as they got on top of the female, they did the mobbing flocks and it went for ages. The mobbing flocks went for 45 seconds and most song birds mate for less than two seconds."

Researchers hope to determine how females respond to both real and mimicked mobbing flocks.

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This story Lyrebird a liar bird as it mimics predator threat first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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