Kleptogamy, the Sneaky F**ker Strategy
It was a warm summer’s night. I was at a bar in the city enjoying a drink after class with some friends. Being the only single female in a group of mostly men I was getting my fair share of attention. The male strategy seemed to be to talk to me the most, be the loudest or to make the boldest statements. One man in the group was being an excellent wingman, boosting his friends’ most recommendable features and steering clear of engaging me directly at all. As the night dwindled, I made moves to get going. The main contender of the group, Taylor, suggested he walk me to my car. Because it was late and I was in the big bad city, I accepted. Except, when I finally managed to leave after making the rounds to say goodbye, I was surprised to find that it was the wingman walking next to me and not his more forward friend. “Taylor had an emergency phone call, so I said I’d walk you instead” the wingman explained. He was charming and intelligent and by the time I reached my car we had exchanged numbers. I was left feeling excited…and confused. So, it turns out, was Taylor. You see, there wasn’t an emergency phone call. Instead, he had been duped into standing in a (conveniently) long drinks line by his supposed wingman. “You sneaky f**ker” I thought.
You’ll have to excuse my language because ‘sneaky f**ker’ is the actual, legitimate, honest to goodness, scientific term coined by John Maynard Smith to describe subordinate, beta or low-status males who opportunistically mate with females while the dominant or alpha males are otherwise occupied. Also known as Kleptogamy or sneaky copulation, this mating strategy is observed in many species, often with elaborate deployment.
One of the simplest versions of this strategy used by male fish is to exploit the external fertilisation of eggs in their species. First, the beta male waits on the edge of an alpha males territory. Then, once the female’s eggs are released, the beta male sneaks in and fertilizes the eggs before making a quick dash back to safety.
A similar strategy is observed with red deer. In this species, males compete for access to harems of females by engaging in lengthy roaring duels (If, like me, you now need to hear what a deer roaring sounds like, see the video below). While the larger males fight, a smaller, lower status male sneaks into the female harems, mates with as many females as he can and disappears before the victor of the duel can return.
In both of the above examples, being caught by the alpha male would have dangerous and potentially fatal consequences. To reduce this risk, some species have taken the strategy to the next level, disguising themselves as females to avoid detection.
One such species is the giant cuttlefish. This species takes the cake for flawless and creative execution of a sneaky f**ker strategy. Male cuttlefish are much larger than their female counterparts and display a darker, more vivid pattern on their backs. During the cuttlefish’s mass annual mating, hundreds of thousands of cuttlefish come together to find a mate. Males display their size and power and if a female is interested, she will draw in her tentacles, triggering the male to guard her underneath his body. If a smaller male was to try to access her, the larger male would attack and send the smaller male packing. To avoid this, some small males have developed a cunning ploy. Thanks to sacs of pigment on their skin, capable of producing different patterns, cuttlefish are masters of camouflage.
The small male uses this advantage to change the pattern on his back, mimicking that of a female. As he approaches, he reinforces the ploy by drawing his tentacles in, triggering the dominant male to hide him under his body where the female is waiting. Once the small male has mated with the female, he casually heads off, appearing to any males as just another picky female looking for a mate. Some researchers have reported seeing this ploy used skilfully while males are searching for a mate. Swimming lower than the larger males but above the females, the small males display a female pattern on their back where the larger males can see it and ignore the smaller male as a threat. But below they show a different story, displaying a male pattern on their belly where the females can see. Thanks to this clever use of colour, they can go undisturbed by the larger males and still advertise their interest to the females.
Less well known are examples of female sneaky f**ker strategy. However, evidence shows that it does occur. In females this behaviour is observed as females engaging in copulations with males other than their mates, or low-status females ‘breaking rank’ to mate with high-status mates. For example, in chimpanzees, a low-ranking female will suppress her mating calls while mating in order to avoid detection by a high-ranking female. Some females will even aid and abet sneaky f**ker males, encouraging or enabling the behaviour in order to gain a fitness advantage from mating with multiple, genetically variable males .
It is worth noting that the sneaky f**ker strategy only occurs in species where mate selection is restricted, usually due to female monopolisation by a male or group of males, mate guarding, hierarchies or because sexual behaviour outside of the ‘system’ is punished. While we may see similarities between these acts and our own, it would be a mistake to think that the two are the same. My wingman was sneaky that’s for sure but the cuttlefish are the real sneaky f**kers.