The quintessential parotia display that is the highlight of their courtship repertoire is when they transform from something that looks mostly birdlike into one of these amazing shapes. And we call this display the “ballerina dance”. It’s a display that’s at once comical and awe-inspiring. The male is standing there upright. And he bows down, he’s just kind of frozen like a plank. And when he lifts up, this is the real moment of transformation, and he basically becomes a new object. Where the feathers of the flanks are wrapped around his body and he creates the skirt form that gives it the name “ballerina dance”. It’s important to keep in mind that this is how we see this display. But of course, this display isn’t intended for us. This display evolved through the process of sexual selection by female choice. And the females are sitting above looking down. For years after seeing many different versions of the ballerina display from the side, we had always wanted to get cameras in position and see the male closer to the way that she sees him. It wasn’t until our very last expedition that Tim and I finally had the chance to see the “ballerina dance” from the female’s perspective. [Turn back and forth.] We did this by using our remote camera set up. And what the female perspective camera revealed was quite surprising. What from the ground looks like a ballerina dancer, looks totally different from above. What the female sees is actually more like a wobbling black ovoid. The skirt, that looks like a skirt from the side actually looks like a disk wrapped around his body. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have even called it the “ballerina dance” had we seen it from this perspective the first time. You can’t see the bird’s legs, you can just barely make out the head wires. Even when the male is doing his waggle you can’t really see the incredible iridescent of the breast shield, except for right when he plunges his head down and it’s lifted up sending a really intense directional color signal to the female above. So what was really great about this is having the two remote cameras synchronized really helped us understand this incredible moment of transformation even better. [He’s going to do another practice display. (Laughs) He’s like right in the camera.]

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At first, the parotias seem to do a different kind of shape shifting from other birds-of-paradise. They fan their feathers into a kind of skirt and then stutter-step around their court in a display called a “ballerina dance.” But a new camera angle reveals that the display looks entirely different to the females who are judging from above. Filmed and photographed by Tim Laman. Explore more at 

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