Transvestites & Monsters

I’ve been thinking about isopods lately. What’s an isopod? On land, you’d recognize it as a “pillbug.” But in the ocean, they get a little too big to hide under rocks.

Meet Bathynomus giganteus, the Giant Isopod. How giant is he? This giant.

This foot-long crustacean travels the deep ocean floor, scavenging on whale carcasses and hunting slow-moving animals. Like a pillbug, it can roll itself up in a ball when threatened. It reportedly has the largest eggs of any marine invertebrate, which it keeps in a sort of marsupium — a pouch.

But B. giganteus isn’t the isopod I’m thinking about today. My last post was about girls that look like boys, and I promised that this post would be about boys that look like girls. And what I came up with was another isopod, Paracerceis sculpta. These tiny, pillbug-sized tidepool denizens look innocuous enough. In truth, many of the males like to play dress-up in high heels. And some prefer diapers.

These isopods lay their eggs in the cavities of sponges. Because the sponges are a limited commodity, the females end up in harems inside each sponge, which is jealously guarded by a big alpha male which stands sentry over the entrance. He will have mating rights over all the females in his sponge. But alpha males aren’t alone: about a third of the males in this species are beta males… who look just like females.

I think you’ve seen this Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Or maybe Don Juan is more apt. If the Alpha isn’t careful, he’ll let in a beta male, thinking he’s just added to his harem, when in fact he just let the backdoor man in by the front door. This is the equivalent of a sultan inviting a veiled, belly-dancing gigolo into his pleasure chambers.

But if that wasn’t sneaky enough, there are also gamma males, who look just like juveniles. Since a juvenile entering the sponge is less tolerated than a female, gamma males seem to have less success than betas. However, gammas have a secret weapon: they’re hung. They have far bigger testes than betas or the relatively puny-packaged alphas, so although they fool the alphas less often, the ones who do can really make the most of it. Thus, the infantilizing, big-balled gamma gene survives.

Moral of the story: if you don’t have the impressive brawn to win over the ladies, you can always try being effeminate, or childlike, and go for stealth. I think we’ve all known guys who’ve managed this maneuver.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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