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Animals' Sex 

Wild Kingdom

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Illustration by Winston Smith

Birds do it, bees do it, even Bill Clinton does it. A few words on the absurdity of mating

By Christopher Weir

S EX, THE HUMAN incarnation, is absurd. It may be an inevitability, it may make the world turn, and you may really, really like it. Nevertheless, it is absurd. Those demanding proof need look no further than the leader of the free world, who is on the verge of being toppled by a loose zipper. You can talk about free love and quote John Lennon until you're blue in the face, but that won't keep you from turning red when someone catches you doing the nasty.

With Valentine's Day upon us in all its Hallmark-saturated glory, now is no time to deny the inherent absurdity of sex. On the other hand, we can't fully embrace the absurdity, if only for the psychological implications. So we might as well turn to another age-old human reflex: sneaking a peek at someone else's dirty laundry. Call it a diversionary tactic, but it sure beats introspection, right?

But if not the human race's dirty laundry, then whose? The animal kingdom's, of course. It's there, under rocks, beneath the sea, in the grass, atop the trees. And we're not talking mammals. They're boring.

We're talking insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and other creatures that take a more surreal approach to copulation.

Without any further ado, then, we present the following. Enjoy the ride. And contemplate the parallels at your own risk.

The Meat Market

SOME OF THE MOST fascinating birds are those that have what's known as a 'lek' behavior," says Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections director at Los Angeles County's Museum of Natural History. "It's essentially the animal kingdom's equivalent of a single's bar. A whole bunch of males will gather together in a display area and show off through dances, vocalizations, displays, and various other behaviors. The females wander in and presumably choose the most desirable or macho males."

Among the lovebirds that exhibit lek behavior, Garret says, are the brightly colored species of South America, as well as some grouses and chickens.

"Because of that mate-choice system," he says, "the males have evolved all sorts of fancy plumage and behaviors as they try to outdo themselves."

Many male insects, on the other hand, opt for a less labor-intensive approach to conquering females: the living chastity belt.

"With a lot of insects, the females will mate many times," says Dr. Brian Brown, assistant curator of entomology at Los Angeles County's Museum of Natural History. "Often, the last male in is the first one out, however. That means that the last batch of sperm that gets into the female will be the first one she uses when she starts laying eggs. So the first guy in there goes right to the back, the next one goes on top, and so on."

Thus: "The male sometimes stays attached for a long period of time," Brown says. "He basically stops the female from mating again, ensuring that his sperm will be used."

Even more dastardly is the remote-controlled chastity belt: "Other males just produce a plug. ... They'll just fill her up with this stuff that basically hardens and keeps her from mating until the eggs are ready."

Girl Power

ELSEWHERE in the animal kingdom, however, females are firmly on top. "There's a deep-sea fish--the lantern fish--where the female is normal size, a few inches long," says Steven Webster, marine science adviser at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "At an early date, a young larval male bites her, attaches, and then gets rid of just about everything. All that's left is essentially a bag of testes."

And?

"Well, if you're big on the feminist movement," Webster says,"you might say, 'Well, that's just fine.' If not, you might say, 'Gee, that's what happened to me.'"

On a Valentine's Day note, male "dance" flies have to muster more than mere sweet talk if they're going to do the hanky-panky. "So they'll kill a small insect," Brown says. "Then they'll fly around holding their little gift. The female comes along, they give her the gift, she feeds on it and allows him to mate with her.

But even predatory flies aren't immune to the cheap-date syndrome. "Certain species within this group cover their gifts with silk before they give them to her," Brown says. "But some have gone even farther. ... They only give her a ball of silk. There's no food in there anymore, but she's so ingrained into reacting to this thing that she still accepts it. She's completely conned."

Doing the Deed

DIFFERENT INSECTS do it all kinds of ways," Brown says. "Face to face, tail to tail, facing away from each other. A lot of them do it in flight."

Any homosexual insects?"No, never heard of that," he replies.

Elsewhere, the nature of the act tends to reflect the nature of the animal. For example, birds, as one might expect, are a little too jumpy and nervous for anything more than a quickie.

"The mating is pretty fleeting," he says. "Most birds don't have any external sexual organs. They have what's called a 'cloaca,' which is essentially the opening of both the reproductive and digestive systems ... so it's pretty much just a quick jump on, then a pressing of the cloacas together."

Lizards, on the other hand, take a more leisurely approach to sex. They don't even bother with the pushups that tend to occupy their more solitary hours.

"With most lizards, the male is literally catatonic when transferring sperm," says Barry Sinervo, assistant professor of biology at UCSC. "The female is more alert, but they're both just kind of sitting there. It takes a good five to 10 minutes for sperm transfer to take place."

But, really, why not just mail it in?

"Sea slugs have shoulder-to-shoulder, hypodermic insemination," Webster says. "The penis is a dartlike structure, and they actually shoot each other. They exchange sperm in both directions and both produce offspring."

Barnacles mail it in, too. Only they don't care where it goes. "All barnacles are both male and female," Webster says. "The larvae tend to settle on rocks by their heads, then secrete a shell and are permanently cemented to those rocks. ... Now, you may think, 'How is a barnacle permanently affixed to a rock by its head going to find a partner'. ... It turns out that every barnacle has a penis 14 barnacle diameters long.

"So within that radius, in any direction, most barnacles have a whole lot of possibilities on Saturday night."

Doing the Darwin

IF YOU HAVE LIVED to be oldest and biggest, chances are you've got good genes," says Webster. "You'll have a robust bunch of kids."

Hence, the "beachmaster," the elephant seal's interpretation of the Superman theory.

"They arrive at Año Nuevo or wherever they come to shore, then stake out and maintain a territory," Webster continues. "They wait for the females to come, then gather a harem of 30 or 40. Meanwhile, they're fending off all the younger mature males. And those beachmasters, who are probably 17 or 18 years old, have been waiting all their lives to get to this exalted position. It takes so much energy to protect that harem, they're usually good for only two or three years; then they die of exhaustion."

He adds, "Something like 7 percent of the males do most of the mating. A good many of the males just never get there. They try to sneak copulations. Some are successful, others aren't."

The "side-blotched" lizard is involved in a more intricate evolutionary game, one that transpires within about eight square miles south of Pacheco Pass. Here's how it works: The males have three different throat colors--orange, blue, and yellow. The orange type is a muscleman, the blue a mate guard, the yellow a drag queen.

"The orange lizards are essentially on steroids and can beat up on the blue ones," Sinervo explains. "They take over the females, so blue ones build up in the population. But the females tend to have yellow on their throat, and the yellow male actually behaves like a female. So the studly blue male doesn't recognize it and gets cuckolded and all his females get copulated by the sneaker. So then the yellow males increase to high frequency.

"But unlike the blue or the orange, they don't defend their territory. So all you need is a mate-guarding male to come in and keep the yellow guys away from the females, and that's exactly what the blue lizards do. Then the blues increase in frequency. So it's really an infinite little cycle, a sort of never-ending love triangle of males."

Love and Marriage

UNTIL RECENTLY, many bird species were thought to be devoted husbands and wives. That is, until paternity testing proved otherwise. "The more studies are done, the more fooling around there seems to be," Garrett says. "A lot of species that were considered monogamous, with just a single male-female pair bond in a breeding season, are now in question. ... It turns out that some of the young don't belong to the father, the male mate. We know this through DNA sequencing."

As for that most touching moment in any marriage, who needs ultrasound to take the surprise out of things?

"The neat thing about some insects called the hymenoptera--ants, bees, wasps--is that the females can decide whether or not they lay male or female eggs, just by whether or not they fertilize them. Unfertilized eggs become males, fertilized eggs become females, depending on the situation and what's most beneficial at the time."

And not all animal courtships end in acrimony. "The 'sleepy' lizards of Australia," Sinervo says, "are monogamous their whole lives. ... They're totally coupled. They kind of truck around together, and they come together to copulate year after year."

Crazy for You

AND, FINALLY, the grand finale: Bizarre sex tricks brought to you by the truly wild kingdom. "With the sheephead [fish], there's an adult super male for a given territory," Webster says. "As soon as that male dies, the next female in line, already predetermined, will in a matter of weeks turn off her female genes and turn on her male genes. She becomes the super male."

That is, unless humans interfere.

"We have one now in our kelp forest that's stuck about halfway through the transition," Webster continues. "It's probably because we removed the male at one point for a few weeks to treat his parasites. When we put him back in, that caused her to grind to a sudden halt. She will undoubtedly be the next male when he dies.

And the drumroll, please ...

"There are these wormlike, multisegmented family of sea animals known as the syllids," says Mark Silberstein, director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation.

"In some species, in the middle of their bodies, a set of eyeballs starts growing, and basically a new head forms about midway down the animal. And it continues to grow, and the reproductive organs are sort of confined to the rear part of the animal's body.

From the new set of eyes down, it starts becoming increasingly differentiated and elongated. It gets paddles for swimming, the eyes enlarge, the gonads grow.

And at some point, usually synchronously, right around either the new or the full moon, these new little animals break off, swim up to the surface of the ocean, and have sex in the water in this huge, communal, collective orgy."

He continues, "Now, typically, that part of the animal dies. But the original part of the animal crawls back under the rocks, comes back another year, and goes through the whole process again."

Now imagine that.

[ | MetroActive Central | ]

From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.


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