Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior

Living Edition
| Editors: Jennifer Vonk, Todd Shackelford

Zigzag Display

  • Madeline Redd
  • Kristine O. EvansEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_1982-1



Zigzag display includes a series of short, sharp turns, angles, or alterations in a course or direction involved in several survival and reproductive behaviors.


Zigzag display is a goal-oriented behavior, which facilitates predator avoidance and mate attraction for some species. As a strategy, zigzag display has been shown to enhance survival and reproductive success, ultimately leading to fitness benefits for a species.

Breeding Behavior

Zigzag display is evident in males of several species as a means to demonstrate quality as a potential mate. These body movements are an important determination in individual reproductive success. Most of the species exhibiting this strategy develop elaborate dance-like behaviors that include sharp or zigzag movements to signal courtship. The three-spine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), a fish species native to northern coastal waters, uses zigzag display as a component of its breeding behavioral repertoire. Males of this species build a nest and exhibit zigzag dancing movements during courtship to attract nearby females in an attempt to secure a mate. The three-spine stickleback male uses its caudal fin to propel dirt in a zigzag fashion to attract the female’s attention to the nest that the male has provisioned (Jun et al. 2008). The zigzag dance has been shown to increase mating success in males that attract females to oviposit in the male’s nest.

Zigzag display occurs across a wide variety of breeding behaviors in several other species as well. Manakins of the Family Pipridae are a group of bird species known for their elaborate courtship dances that use zigzag display to attract females. Female manakins choose their mates based off the male’s courtship performance (Barske et al. 2011). The more favorably the female perceives the male’s agility and swift movements during zigzag display, the better the male’s chances for mating success during courtship. Kingbirds (Tyrannus spp.) have long been shown to use a zigzag flight display to attract females during courtship (Townsend 1920). This bird species uses a very displeasing courtship dance to the human eye; however, the males that are successful with the display have increased chances of reproductive success.

Predator Avoidance (Escape Behavior)

The ability for prey to escape or avoid predators is critical to individual survival. Animals of many species have adapted countermeasures to predator hunting strategies to increase chances for survival. In the predator avoidance context, the zigzag display is a series of distracting movements intended to disorient a predator and slow the forward trajectory of a predation attempt. A study assessing success in avian predators showed that zigzag display behavior in snakes was a greater determinant of successful predator avoidance than disruptive coloration (Niskanen and Mappes 2005). Some scientists believe that erratic zigzag displays cause disruption in the mechanisms driving predator attack behavior when responding to the prey’s erratic movements (Humphries and Driver 1970). Gazelles, rabbits, and other herbivores are known for using erratic zigzag movements to escape the grasp of predators. In FitzGibbon (1993), the author investigated outcomes of increasing distance between prey and predator in gazelles as a result of zigzag patterns of movement and found that risk of predation decreased in older gazelles due to improved agility and capacity for sharp movements exhibited during zigzag display.


Zigzag display is a metabolic investment for an individual exhibiting this behavior but provides important potential survival and reproductive benefits. The behavior has been defined as an erratic movement to advance the animal’s fitness, and studies clearly demonstrate direct linkages between fitness and zigzag escape and courtship behavior. Prey species take advantage of the agility and speed of the zigzag movement to reduce risk of predation. Males of some species may also use the attention-grabbing movements of the zigzag display during courtship to enhance likelihood of being chosen by a female as a mate.



  1. Barske, J., Schlinger, B. A., Martin, W., & Fusani, L. (2011). Female choice for male motor skills. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 278(1724), 3523–3528.  https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2011.0382.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. FitzGibbon, C. D. (1993). Cheetahs and gazelles: A study of individual variation in antipredator behaviour and predation risk. Physiology and Ecology Japan, 29, 195–206.Google Scholar
  3. Humphries, D. A., & Driver, P. M. (1970). Protean defence by prey animals. Oecologia, 5(4), 285–302. Retrieved September 10, 2018, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00815496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Jun, K., Seiichi, M., & Catherine, L. (2008). Divergence of male courtship displays between sympatric forms of anadromous threespine stickleback. Behaviour, 145(4), 443–461.Google Scholar
  5. Niskanen, M., & Mappes, J. (2005). Significance of the dorsal zigzag pattern of Vipera latastei gaditana against avian predators. Journal of Animal Ecology, 74(6), 1091–1101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Townsend, C. W. (1920). Courtship in birds. Auk, 37(3), 380–393.  https://doi.org/10.2307/4073266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and AquacultureMississippi State UniversityMississippi StateUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Mystera M. Samuelson
    • 1
  1. 1.The Institute for Marine Mammal StudiesGulfportUSA