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Why We Cheat: Bird Mating Habits Used To Explain Infidelity In New Study

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Scientists are finding out a little more about the birds and the bees -- and surprisingly, infidelity -- by studying the mating habits of our feathered friends.

In an attempt to figure out what makes birds cheat, evolutionary ecologists at North Carolina State University and Columbia University reviewed over 400 studies about the separation tendencies of more than 200 species of birds from around the world.

Their findings, reported in the science journal PLoS One on Thursday, suggest that birds are more inclined to seek out new partners when climate conditions become unpredictable or variable.

The likely reason? The researchers found that birds, regardless of whether they're male or female, seek out diverse genes for their young when they're uncertain of what the future may bring. Cheating improves a bird's chances of combining their genes with other genes best suited for whatever environment their chicks may be born into.

The flighty findings could provide us with more insight into what makes human beings stray, said Carlos Botero, one of the study's lead researchers.

“Humans have been able to transform the environment to such a level so that basic processes like rainfall and temperature affect us very little,” Botero told Discovery.com. But humans have considerably less control over changes in the stock market or other outside economic forces -- the human equivalent of an unpredictable climate, as Discovery.com points out.

“You might think this is the guy of your dreams based on the world you think is occurring,” Botero told the site. “But if the world changes, your idea might change, too.”

It's not the first time scientists have studied infidelity among animals. In 2004, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience found that there is a "monogamy gene" in prairie voles that is less prevalent in its close cousin, the meadow vole. When meadow voles were injected with the gene, called the "vasopressin receptor," the usually promiscuous animals exhibited a greater attachment to their mates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that meadow voles have higher levels of the "monogamy gene." That is incorrect; prairie voles have higher levels of the gene.

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