Single and ready to mingle, a lobster doesn’t mate with one partner for life, despite what you may have heard on “Friends.” Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Since the episode of “Friends” when Phoebe declared that Rachel was Ross’ lobster – because lobsters mate for life – Maine’s iconic sea creature has become a symbol of undying love, appearing on gifts, like mugs and keychains, meant to convey devotion. But before you pick up a card with the crustacean this Valentine’s Day, you might want to think again.

Lobsters are far from monogamous. In fact, males may mate with as many as 10 females in a season, said Bob Steneck, professor of oceanography at the University of Maine. And it’s not the only species native to the state whose mating rituals are misunderstood. While animals like beavers and bald eagles build families and form bonds, the reasons are hardly romantic.

All scientific evidence points to the fact that monogamy in the strictest sense in the animal kingdom – where animals are faithful to one partner exclusively, even for breeding purposes – is exceedingly rare. (If you want to show your one love true devotion, call them your prairie vole. It’s the only wildlife species that scientists believe mates for life with one exclusive breeding partner.)

Although as much as 90 percent of the world’s nearly 10,000 bird species – including those native to Maine, like bald eagles, loons and osprey – appear to mate for life, they really only form what scientists call a “pair bond,” to work as a team to raise a family for a period of time. And the small fraction – less than 10 percent – of the Earth’s 4,000 mammal species that seem to make lifelong mates also are not monogamous in all aspects (that is, other than those crazy loyal prairie voles).

“It’s not very romantic. The name of the game is to spread the genes,” said Lindsay Seward, an instructor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation Biology at the University of Maine. “And when you’re spreading genes, variety is good. So females do extra-pair coupling. In human terms, that would be called cheating.”

Then again, it might depend on your definition of “mate for life.” The praying mantis, which is native to Maine, technically could be said to mate for life, Seward points out.

“The female attracts the male, and then after they mate, she eats him,” Seward said. “So he only mates once and only with her.”

Not quite lovebirds

Birds often appear to mate for life because they seek the most successful breeding situation possible, and as a result may nest with the same partner for years. But even in such situations, many still breed with another on the side. Many females will seek a second partner with a sweeter song, a better territory or more attractive plumage, Seward said.

Dante, a crow at the Center for Wildlife in York. Crows may choose long-term mates but aren’t known to be monogamous. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

More often then not, that one outstanding male will end up fathering many chicks, Seward said. Scientists have proven this through DNA testing. So the reality of the busy bird breeding season is something less romantic than common belief suggests.

“Pairs staying together is mostly for efficiency,” said Nick Lund, Maine Audubon’s outreach manager. “It’s hard to attract a mate, and time-consuming and perhaps dangerous, and so species save time and effort by simply sticking together once they’ve established a bond. In the end, most birds are not monogamous or with the same mate for life. But the messy reality actually is something that makes them more human.”

Across Maine’s bird life, common species such as gulls, ravens, crows and barred owls all choose longtime mates, but again, are not necessarily monogamous with the one nesting partner.

Biologists say many bird species choose longstanding mates to employ a kind of “buddy system,” just like people traveling in the wilderness do to increase their chances of survival by having another to help find protection, food and shelter. As a result, many bird pairs in Maine appear to have rock-solid relationships.

Fair-weather feathered friends

Take the story of Loki, the peregrine falcon who was rehabilitated from an injury at the Center for Wildlife in York. When the male raptor was released at its former breeding ground, a younger male peregrine had taken over Loki’s nest – and paired with his mate. Normally, the older bird would play second fiddle to a younger bird, said Sarah Kern at the Center for Wildlife. But not Loki.

“He came back and kicked the male out of his nest, and claimed his mate,” Kern said. “It was ‘Days of our Lives’ but with peregrines.”

Byron, a male barred owl at the Center for Wildlife in York, lets Fern, a female barred owl who shares the same enclosure, eat all the food the staff leaves for them. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Then there’s Byron, a barred owl – another species that appears to form lifelong relationships. One of the center’s longtime ambassadors (meaning he has a permanent injury and cannot be released), Byron acts truly devoted to Fern, a non-releasable female barred owl. He refuses to eat until Fern has finished the food left for them, so the staff has to remove Byron from the enclosure they share to get him to have a meal. (Now, how many women can claim this of their mate?)

“Fern is very mellow,” Kern said. “She allows Byron to be the fixer. He is being her protector.”

But don’t go buying Valentine’s Day cards decorated with barred owls just yet. Kern said the hard truth is that most birds are chiefly loyal to a nesting location – not a mate.

Fern might seem like Byron’s barred owl girlfriend, but it’s probably more about the nesting spot than her. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It’s the classic mate for life, mourn for a minute,” Kern said. “So when they come back to their nest during breeding season, if their mate is back, awesome. If their mate is not back, they don’t wait around.”

Studies show that even the seemingly touching stories of bird pairs are not tales of undying love.

Cardinals are often considered the quintessential lovebirds because pairs often sit together, fly together and feed each other. However, Lund said male cardinals have been observed with more than one female partner – and divorces (a term used by scientists) do occur. A 1997 study of a Ohio cardinal population showed that of 10 banded pairs of cardinals, two divorced between seasons. Even during the all-important breeding season, the study showed, two out of 21 pairs divorced.

Perhaps the most telling bird study was one published last year in The Canadian Field-Naturalist that dispelled the notion that Canada geese – a common species in Maine, where there are both migrating and non-migrating populations – mate for life. The study used 25 years of data with 160 collared Canada geese to show 15 percent of the females and 18 percent of males divorced during their lifetimes.

“People have always thought swans and geese mate for life,” Seward said. “But the study showed if one mate decided they were unwilling to reproduce that year – they got dumped.”

Commonly believed to be monogamous, Canada geese, seen here in a farm field in Cape Elizabeth, will dump any mate that refuses to reproduce. Carl D. Walsh/ Staff Photographer

More un-amorous animals 

Coyotes (which expanded their range into Maine a century ago), beavers and, though they no longer live here, wolves are three native Maine mammal species that remain bonded to a breeding partner. Wolves and coyotes are famously loyal to their mates – traveling and hunting alongside each other. But that’s mostly because of the hard work involved in defending a home territory, Seward said.

A beaver gnaws on small saplings at a hole in the ice of a small pond in Benton. Beavers form loyal clans but DNA testing shows that kits within a single den often have different fathers. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

Beavers, on the other hand, have a complex family structure with not only the mother and father raising the young, but also older siblings, aunts and uncles. So there is some serious clan loyalty among beavers. And yet, even here, Seward said, DNA studies have shown kits from different fathers are often found in beaver dens.

But it’s understandable why a layman might look at these species and assume they’re loyal lovers. Why Phoebe thought lobsters were the picture of monogamy, however, is a mystery.

While the males are out to mate with as many females as possible, the female lobsters are focused on attracting the best mate possible.

“There is competition among the females to mate with the local dominant male – think Brad Pitt,” said Steneck, the UMaine marine biologist.

If they succeed, he said, they’ll hold onto the sperm from “their dream date” to use a year later for a second clutch.

As for the origin of Phoebe’s now widespread fallacy, Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire, who worked on “Friends” in the late 1990s, said, like everything else in the show, it was just a joke.


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