Male orangutans can be extremely coercive and violent towards sexually receptive females. It makes a lot of sense for a female to do her homework and investigate the personality type of a particular male prior to mating.
They do this by engaging in food-sharing with potential mates.
It’s actually more like food-taking, rather than food-sharing.
Females will attempt to get some food that is already in possession of a male. She will grab it from his hands, feet, or mouth. We’re not talking about high-quality food items, either. The kinds of things she is apt to take are easy to find.
In the human world, the equivalent would be sneaking a few fries from a potential mate’s plate.
The female is not concerned about the items in question. In fact, for the most part she’s not even hungry.
She is taking the food merely to gauge the male’s reaction. She investigates aspects of his personality that indicate whether he will be an appropriate mate and/or father.
The beauty is in the simplicity of the action. It’s as if she’s saying, “I could easily get some of my own, but I’m going to help myself to yours instead. Deal with it.”
In this way, she’s able to gain information that will help her select a mate.
Males show a range of reactions to females engaging in this kind of behavior. He may simply tolerate it, he may violently take the food back, or he may even take the food from other nearby females.
This kind of behavioural assessment goes a long way to helping a female select her ideal mate.
With orangutans, coercive males often get a sizeable share of mating opportunities irrespective of female choice. The big tough guys are always going to be reproductively successful to a certain extent. However, females have evolved this strategy to mitigate their dominance.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book “Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom“