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Where the female antelopes play

The African Topi female had better not catch her guy going wrong. If he strays, she will attack, butting heads and striking out her sharp curved antlers.

The Topi, a majestic antelope that lives in East Africa, is one of the few mammals whose mating system is based on what biologists call a "lek," which is sort of a wild-animal version of a singles bar.

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In an antelope lek, both male and female Topi gather in a specific area, and females receptive to mating pick out a mate. Once the choice is made, she'll fight to exhaustion to protect her rights, according to a study appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jakob Bro-Jorgensen of the Zoological Society of London spent two years studying the mating habits of the Topi in Kenya and Tanzania and found that females are primed to punish a mate that strays, or to attack encroaching females.

Bro-Jorgensen found that if a dominant female catches her mate "in the act," she'll attack – head lowered, sharp antlers poised – and disrupt the romance.

The wronged female may then butt heads and lock antlers repeatedly with the male, or attempt to chase away the competing female.

Such behavior is almost unknown among wild mammals, said Gordon Orians, a professor emeritus of behavioral ecology at the University of Washington. "This happens a lot in birds, where females often bust up mating," said Orians. "But this is the strongest case we have where it actually happens among mammals."

Orians said it is clear the female Topi is the one who makes the mating selection. This is completely unlike the mating system of many wild mammals, where males fight for dominance and the winner gets the females.

Among some herd animals, the male will establish a harem, which he protects from other males.


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