June 3, 2011 at 3:18 PM ET
In the world of golden-collared manakins, a split second can be the difference between life and death. As a result, females look for a mate who displays supreme speed and agility in a blazingly fast courtship dance, according to new research.
"The females prefer the males that perform the elements of the dance faster and demonstrate better motor coordination," lead author Julia Barske, a graduate student and doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a news release.
She and colleagues observed the little birds native to Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica in the rain forest near Gamboa in Panama for three months, recording the dance with high-speed video and camera equipment.
"Our data suggest the courtship display is a proxy for survival capability," co-author Barney Schlinger, a professor and departmental chair of integrative biology and physiology and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said in the release.
"To survive in the wild, it's an advantage to have extra neuromuscular capability. Being faster can enable a golden-collared manakin to escape a predator."
During the courtship dance, several males gather together in a small area, and each jumps from small tree to small tree while making a fast, powerful, loud snapping sound with his wings, the researchers explain. He also does this wing-snap while perched. When the male lands on a perch, he rapidly turns to expose his feathers to the female.
It is "intense, physically elaborate, complex, accurate, fast behavior," Schlinger said.
The male performs these feats "not necessarily because he wants to, but because that's what the female rewards," he added. "If the female rewards a slightly faster behavior, then the males will get faster. We propose that elaborate, acrobatic courtship dances evolve because they reflect the motor skills and cardiovascular function of males."
The study is published online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Co-authors of the study are Leonida Fusani of Italy's University of Ferrara and Martin Wikelski, a director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and a faculty member at Germany's Konstanz University. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as by the National Geographic Society.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).