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Do Animals Really Mate for Life?

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With Valentine's Day over, let's get real about "Romance"…   Do any animals really mate for life?

In short: there are generally well-accepted lists of animals that appear to mate for life as a primary reproductive strategy - which is the sole purpose for "mating" in biological terms. About 90% of 9,700 species of birds pair, mate, and raise chicks together — some returning to the same nest site year after year. Often fidelity is to a particular nest site is stronger than to an individual mate. Birds mate for life in a social sense: birds create strong domestic partnerships, living together as mated pairs that arenot necessarilyentirely exclusive. Male birds routinely raise unrelated chicks. DNA tests reveal male birds do not father 10% to 40% of nestlings. Even birds famously reported to “mate for life” - swans, geese, vultures, penguins and albatrosses – quickly find a new mate if one of a pair perishes.  

In mammals, only 3% of 4,000 mammal species are reported to be monogamous. Most-often cited: beavers, wolves, Gibbons and Prairie voles. Wolves are generally considered monogamous yet wolves may also have more than one mate in a lifetime.

Lists depend upon definitions of "mate for life." Recent DNA studies disprove monogamy in every species except one: Prairie voles. Exhaustive genetic mapping and observation of wild and captive prairie vole offspring has yet to reveal any offspring NOT being raised by biological parents.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Senior Director of Education for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he has worked for over 30 years. He is responsible for the design and delivery of conservation-related outreach education programs including field trips, tours and presentations to Forest Society members, conservation partners, and the general public.

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