Is Sexual Selection Katy Perry’s Favorite Evolutionary Biology Process?

Seems to me that pop artists are really just evolutionary biologist wannabes; if they weren’t, why are they always singing about sexual selection! (Well, singing about sexual selection when not singing about random mating.) Take Katy Perry’s song “Peacock” for example. If you don’t know the lyrics, you can listen here; however, I reimagine them from a peahen perspective below. Critics panned this peppy evolution-y ditty as a crass double entendre. Whatever; I think Ms. Perry was drawing attention to this unique research on peahen eye movement during peafowl (Pavo cristatus) courtship by Yorzinski et al (open).

Be the judge/ And my girls gonna take a vote
Sexual selection is the process of individuals choosing and/or competing for mates. Sexual selection is complex. For example, some species choose mates which provide resources to the partner choosing; this includes male birds that defend a high quality habitat patch. A female may choose the bird defending the high quality habitat so she and her offspring have more food than a male defending a lower quality patch. However, not all species offer these types of resources to their mates. Alternatively, males may have exaggerated traits. This ornamentation may be the frequency or amplitude of a mating call (it takes a lot of energy to call continuously and/or loudly, which may indicate superior genes); or a showy behavioral display or ornamentation, such as peacock feathers. Showy displays may help a male obtain a mate, but they come at the risk of exposing an individual to predators.

Male traits are only half of the story because females must then choose between the males. Thus mate choice has several implications, including coevolution between male displays and female preference, and a role in speciation.

Wanna see the show/ In 3D, a movie/ Heard it’s beautiful
In the Yorzinski et al paper, the researchers asked: what specific traits are peahens cueing in on when choosing a mate? To answer this, they fit females with a tiny bird helmet and camera that tracked their eye movements. They then introduced the females to a male and recorded where she looked on the male body as he displayed. They found that peahens mainly look at the lower train which is dense with eyespots. This may be due to the close proximity of the animals during the experiment. Peahens also looked at the upper train (the big display) when they were farther away. The researchers hypothesized that the upper train and behaviors such as train rattling and wing beating may attract mates across the lek then hold their attention.

I’m a peace out if you don’t give me the pay-off
What makes this study so interesting is that given how huge the male display is, both physically and behaviorally, females are only gazing at a small fraction of the display. The authors note that in the coevolution between the sexes, the females have evolved a behavior of selective attention. The authors hypothesize that the male display evolved to attract female attention at different courtship stages (presumably in relation to distance). I wonder if the coevolution has made parts of the display obsolete over time; certainly the showy teal breast feathers are not attracting attention (lowest area viewed by peahens). So maybe Katy Perry’s evolutionary biologist chops are showing as she identifies only a small portion of the male display is enough to attract mating success.

Peahen wearing camera helmet with eye tracker and outward facing video recorder. Photo credit: Duke University Press (

(Reimagined from a peahen perspective)

I wanna see your feathers, oh, oh
Your feathers, oh
Your feathers, oh, oh
Your feathers

[Verse 1:]
Word in the forest, you got somethin’ to show me, me
Magical, colorful, Mr. Showy, ee
I’m intrigued, for a peek, heard it’s fascinating
Come on baby let me see
What you’re displayin’ overhead

What’s behind your back
Such a tease
Wanna see the show
In 3D, a movie
Heard it’s beautiful
Be choose-y
And my girls gonna take a vote

Come on baby let me see
What you’re displayin’ overhead

I want the beak droppin’, eye twitchin’, head turnin’, body shockin’
(Uh, e, e, uh, uh, uh, e, e, uh)
I want my heart throbbin’, tail shakin’, show stoppin’, amazin’
(Uh, e, e, uh, uh, uh, e, e, uh)

Are you brave enough to let me see your feathers?
Don’t be a chicken boy, or a nasty little sage-grouse
I’m a peace out if you don’t shimmer for me
Come on baby let me see
What you’re displayin’ overhead
Are you brave enough to let me see your feathers?
What you’re waiting for, it’s time for you to rattle around
Don’t be a shy kinda guy I’ll bet it’s beautiful
Come on baby let me see
What you’re displayin’ overhead

[Hook] x2
[Verse 2:]
Skip the squawk, the me-YAW, time to strut it all
Break me off, if you bad, show me who’s the bird
Need a lek, to get loose, come on display it all

Come on baby let me see
What you’re displayin’ overhead


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