In over a decade of watching the courtship dances of male parotias, Cornell lab scientist, Ed Scholes, had never seen them from the perspective from which they evolved. In fact, nobody had. Every description and documentation of these dances had been observed from the ground. Nobody had ever viewed them from the branch hanging above the display court, from the female’s point of view. In other words, nobody has fully understood what female parotias find so attractive about the male’s dance. On their eighteenth and last expedition in New Guinea, Ed and Tim Laman used new technology and a new strategy to get above the display court of a male Wahnes’s Parotia and capture the first glimpse of what a female parotia sees from her perch. Doing so required a little ingenuity, thorough planning, and a considerable amount of patience. Male parotias pay remarkable attention to detail when building their display courts. They clear away all of the ferns, small saplings and leaves to open up a space on the forest floor. They trim away leaves from overhanging limbs to open a pathway for the sun, a natural light source for their dance court. Males are careful to select sites with an elevated horizontal branch so females have a spot to perch and to get a good view. Ed and Tim had to employ their own engineering design to capture this perspective. This diagram shows their plan, three cameras set up to simultaneously record the dance from multiple angles. Camera A was positioned in the ground blind. From this spot, Tim could photograph the traditional view with a long lens, getting the fine details of the display. Ed would be next to him, controlling cameras B and C, the two other remote units. Camera B was concealed off to the side of the court with a wide-angle lens to get a view of the entire scene and camera C was for the female perspective. It was deployed in a tree ten feet above the court with a line of sight directly down to the female’s perch and onto where the male would dance below. Each piece of gear had to be installed when the birds were away from the display court. All of it had to be hidden so as not to disturb the birds, especially the wary females. More than two hundred feet of camouflaged cables were unfurled to connect the whole set up. After installing their three-camera system, Ed and Tim sat in the blind and waited. And waited. For two weeks, the birds teased. They were around but not very active. It was about time to pack up camp and head out. And then, the big break, the show they had been waiting so long to see finally began. Here’s the traditional view from the ground blind. The displaying male looks like a ballerina wearing a skirt or tutu. In fact, Ed calls this display the “ballerina dance.” Here’s the view from the wide camera. And here’s the view from the female perspective. Here are the two remote cameras together. While Ed knew the female perspective of the male’s display would be different, he never dreamed there was a totally new discovery waiting to be uncovered. By observing the male’s courtship dance from above, a relatively minor patch of iridescent feathers on the back of the head comes into view. To the female, this appears to be a visual cue tracing the side to side head movements which would otherwise be invisible against the velvet-black backdrop created by the male skirt. Until Ed and Tim saw their video, they hadn’t understood the significance of this little ornament. In a single moment, they had captured a unique insight into the forces of sexual selection that drive the evolution of the birds-of-paradise.

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To make a discovery you often have to do something new. To understand the “ballerina dance” of the Wahnes’s Parotia, Ed Scholes and Tim Laman had to devise a way to film from new angles using remote cameras. The result helps explain how males use some previously mysterious display feathers. In this case, Tim’s camera expertise went beyond photojournalism to prove crucial in making a scientific advance. Filmed and photographed by Tim Laman. Explore more at