Mating season at CNPRC brings a plethora of flirtatious behavior

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(UC DAVIS, Calif.) – He struts to her with much swagger and then comes the moment of truth – he smacks his lips at her. She responds by doing some smacking of her own, but instead she uses her hand. It’s a scene that plays itself out almost daily along with others during mating season at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) at UC Davis.

The lip smacking is an affiliative gesture, and can be a form of flirting says Kelly Finn, a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group who works in the lab of CNPRC Core Scientist Dr. Brenda McCowan. Finn is studying the social networks of the nonhuman primates and doing some research on mating networks. Mating season begins in the fall and lasts three or four months, Finn said, and it’s around this time that she observes lip smacking and other flirtatious behaviors happening between the monkeys.

“There’s a lot of different mating behaviors and it seems like different males have different styles, there’s some variability there,” she said. “You’ll often see the male approach the female and sometimes he’ll tap her or get in her face to get her attention and he’ll make faces such as lip smacking, where it’s rapid movement of the lips, or jaw thrusting, where the lower jaw is stuck out and the head is raised. Or they’ll do suave upper body dips or bouncing in front of the female.”

Much of the flirting is done by male monkeys with the goal of entering a consortship with a female. Less common are females who flirt and enter consortships with other female monkeys, Finn said.

LISTEN: Kelly further explains the flirtatious behavior seen among primates at CNPRC:

“It’s basically a monkey date,” Finn said, explaining how the consortships work. “They follow each other around, they groom each other, they spend lots of time together, they eat together, they show aggression to other monkeys together. And these consortships can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several weeks.”

The monkeys also mate together under the consortships. Some monkeys have many consortships, while others have few to none, Finn said. The data she is collecting – with the help of a data collection team consisting of five undergraduate students – is being used in a social network study conducted by Dr. McCowan’s lab at CNPRC.

Finn said the monkeys’ social group can be described as multilayer networks characterized by different types of social behaviors, such as aggression networks or grooming networks. Throughout the year, seasonal network layers emerge, such as the mating networks that Finn is studying.

“I’m really interested in how the mating network layer influences the interaction on these other layers,” Finn said. “So if some animals have a lot of mating relationships how does it affect who they are then fighting with, who they are then grooming with.”

Finn and her team will continue collecting data through the end of the quarter, which ends in December, and will begin analyzing their data in early 2017.