Peacocks need not sacrifice flying skills for sexiness

Haribabu Pasupathy/Wikimedia Commons

Peacocks need not sacrifice flying skills for sexiness

A male peacock’s tail may help him attract mates, but does it also make him an easy meal? Scientists have long believed that these birds had to sacrifice some mobility in order to sport such dramatic decorative plumage, which accounts for 60% of their length. Now, a team of researchers has finally put this idea to the test by measuring peacocks’ ability to make a quick escape—with and without their tails. Working with five Indian peacocks (pictured above), the scientists set up a flight arena where they could film the birds taking off with high-speed 3D video cameras. Rattling a stick to prompt the birds to fly to a higher perch, they measured the peacocks’ velocity at takeoff and at the end of their second wingstroke. Flight performance was assessed in terms of the amount of power used to accelerate and increase the body’s height off the ground—the things that matter most when a bird is trying evade a predator. Later, the researchers removed the birds’ tail feathers (simulating the natural molting that occurs after the breeding season) and filmed them again. After analyzing the video, they found that there was no statistically significant difference in flight performance of peacocks with intact tail feathers and those without, they report online today in The Journal of Experimental Biology. This research complicates the common assumption in evolutionary biology that elaborate sexual ornaments must come at a cost to the animal. But although peacocks’ elaborate feather trains don’t impede speedy takeoffs, the researchers note that they may pose other burdens to the birds, such as compromising their flight control, stability, and ground running performance.

Follow News from Science

dancing shoes
Volcano erupting at night