How Male Antelopes Get the Girl: Feigning Fear

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Theo Allofs / Corbis

A topi in Kenya

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The researchers also made recordings of three types of sounds produced by the males: a real alarm call, a false one and an unrelated grunt or snort. Playing the sounds 20 different times for 60 different females, they found a consistent set of reactions: the females ignored the random grunt but stopped in their tracks when they heard either the real snort or the fake one.

"It's almost amusing to us," Pangle said in a press statement. "The female hears the snort and thinks, Oops, there is a lion." The fact that the female is so readily taken in by the ruse either means that the male is very good at disguising his motives or that, even if he's not, the female still decides it's not worth taking any chances. "Even if they caught on, it's still better to be safe than sorry," said Pangle. "The cost of missing that cue, if it is accurate, is so high."

The larger implication of the study is one that a randy male topi himself would never bother to consider, but that may speak well of him all the same. Conscious deception is a trait not unheard of in the animal kingdom, but it's a rare one. Plovers are known to fake a broken wing to lead predators away from their nest, for example, only to flap away to safety at the last moment. Knowing the truth and misrepresenting it to another individual requires what is known as a "theory of mind," the awareness that what you know is not the same as what everyone else knows. That, in turn, implies the awareness that other creatures have minds at all — a very high-order insight and one that humans don't fully achieve until they're 3 years old.

Pangle cautions that it may be too early for the topi to start applying to colleges. "Intelligence is not a necessary requirement for a deceptive trait to evolve," she tells TIME. Misrepresenting the truth will be favored in a communication system if the benefit of being fooled is greater than the cost. In other words, the male topi might have come by the trait accidentally, and for reasons it did not understand, more matings resulted. Of course, the fact that those extra matings do result means that more young topis will inherit the behavior. However the topis learned to deceive, they're not going to unlearn it anytime soon.

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