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Two birds cuddling

Are animals monogamous?

Published: 25th January, 2022 at 16:00
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Are those loved-up birds you saw in a documentary really faithful to each other?

Biologists tend to split monogamy into social monogamy (a pair living together to mate, share resources and care for young) and genetic monogamy (a couple exclusively having sex and reproducing with each other).

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While we may prize monogamy in many human cultures, it’s pretty unusual among mammals, with just 3 to 5 per cent of species being socially monogamous. These include a few bats, grey wolves, some primates, prairie voles and Eurasian beavers, among others. In birds, monogamy is far more common with some 90 per cent of species exhibiting social monogamy. It is rare in fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Crucially, the definition of ‘social monogamy’ does not mean that the two animals in a pairing will be faithful to each other. In fact, many will have flings on the side when no one is watching.

It is thought that monogamy evolved to maximise the chances of offspring survival, with two parents available to help with care, feeding and protection.

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Authors

Alice Lipscombe-SouthwellManaging editor, BBC Science Focus

Alice is the managing editor at BBC Science Focus Magazine. She has a BSc in zoology with marine zoology. Her interests include natural history, wildlife, the outdoors, health and fitness.

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