Tag Archives: sexuality

Long-Distance Relationship

When you are a child, you imagine animals pairing off neatly, like Noah’s menagerie coupling and marching up the gangplank to the chapel of bestial matrimony. Lovebirds are joined at the hip like a tween romance, and two swans form a perfect heart-shape with the teacup-handle arcs of their necks. Then you grow up, take a few biology courses, and discover that everything you thought was wrong. To your dismay, you realize that animals, even the kind that seem to exist in a monogamous marriage of sorts, cheat on one another constantly. Lovebirds get a little action on the sly; cuckoos can be cuckolded; monkeys can be real swingers; owls can get a little extra loving after midnight; house sparrows can be homewreckers; even swans, those regal symbols of romantic love swimming atop a wedding cake, are less backyard birds than backdoor men. In the avian world, it’s estimated that 90% of bird couples are socially monogamous (as opposed to 7% in mammals), but of those, 90% are sexually non-monogamous. Long under the spell of prudish human social norms and presuming fidelity among animals, scientists now seem to revel in revealing the promiscuity of the animal kingdom. But if polyamory is the true norm, that makes the monogamous animals the true weirdos, and therefore worth a closer look-see. What is the biological root of monogamy?

Dads with shotguns?

Without cracking open the scientific Ark of the Covenant that question implies, or the world’s largest can of worms that is human sexuality, let’s just talk about the birds. (And, this time, not the bees.) Can anything be said of that thin sliver of avifauna that is both sexually and socially monogamous? Yes, it seems. Most of the few birds that are both socially and sexually monogamous do it for the same reason many married couples do: for the kids. These are birds that live in such a hostile habitat that it takes every ounce of parental care to nourish their chicks. In other words, the parents would cheat on each other; they just don’t have the time or energy.

Not tonight, honey. I've got a *zzzzzzzz*

Seabirds in rocky, windy, or icy climes — like Emperor Penguins — make up the majority of sexually monogamous pairs, but one type of bird creates a hostile habitat for itself specifically so it cannot engage in extra-marital canoodling. That’s because in this species, the female is literally imprisoned behind a wall. It’s the Monteiro’s Hornbill of Namibia, and it is a master mason on the level of an Edgar Allen Poe antagonist. A mated pair of hornbills will scope out a suitable neighborhood to nest, preferably a stand of old-growth forest with large cavities in the trees. The holes may have been made by a fallen branch, or may have been carved out by a woodpecker. But however it’s made, it should be large enough for the female to enter and sit comfortably. She chooses carefully, because she’s going to be inside for a very long time.

Also, how are the schools?

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I’m Ever Upper Class High Society
God’s Gift To Ballroom Notoriety
I Always Fill My Ballroom
The Event Is Never Small
The Social Pages Say I’ve Got
The Biggest Balls Of All

–AC/DC, “Big Balls”

The zoology world is atwitter this week with news from the world of insects. Stop the presses! We’ve discovered the animal with the largest testicles in proportion to its body! Yes, it’s the Tuberous Bush Cricket, a katydid with huevos that make up 14% of its body weight. To put that in perspective, fellas, it would be like hoisting around 11 lb prairie oysters. The human head is 8-12 lbs, so imagine dragging your own head around in your nutsack. You’d literally need a wheelbarrow.

I’m rarely one to jump on bandwagons when it comes to the latest news, but how could I resist this little nugget about enormous McNuggets? It gives me yet another excuse to talk about insects and sexual selection. We’ve already discussed the mystery of the mammalian penis, so it’s about time we devoted some thought to our jungleberries, as well. I want to explore the reason for diversity in the size and shape of bollocks in the animal world. And I want to test my writerly skills to see if I can write an entire article about fuzzy danglers without using the same euphemism for “testicles” twice.

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Love Bug

“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles,” quipped the biologist J.B.S. Haldane when he was asked if he could infer anything about God from his study of nature. The atheist Haldane was musing on the perplexing success of the beetle order; 40% of all insect species are beetles, which makes them perhaps 20% of all species on Earth, or one-fifth of all animals. But if Yahweh does have a peculiar beetle fetish, it may be because he’s a sexual masochist.

You have probably heard of Spanish Fly, whether sold in truck stop bathroom dispensers or in Nigerian internet spam. Well, here is the original Spanish Fly: a blister beetle called Lytta vesicatoria, whose body is crushed to make what many believe is a potent aphrodisiac. First used in husbandry to incite animals to mate, it wasn’t long before humans were dropping the powder in each other’s drinks to spark each others’ passions and hopefully get a little “husbandry” action themselves. But L. vesicatoria isn’t called a blister beetle for nothing: the active ingredient in Spanish Fly is cantharidin, a toxin which, in small doses, irritates and inflames the urinary tract, leading to a burning sensation the body can mistake for arousal. In only slightly larger doses, it causes permanent damage to the kidneys and genitals. It’s used to burn off warts and tattoos. Its properties and toxicity are similar to strychnine. In fact, it was the cantharidin from L. vesicatoria, applied to the neck by a quack doctor to quicken the blood, which seems to have killed Simon Bolivar, Liberator of South America. So, there’s Spanish Fly for you: At best, it makes your urethra burn and itch; at worst, it’s deadly. Its continued popularity and mystique only go to show just how far humans will go to gain an advantage in the battle of sexual selection, and our inability to tell pleasure from pain.

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The name comes from the Sanskrit word for “testicle.” It is not a single chemical compound, but rather a single scent that can be produced by many different chemical structures and many different plants and animals. But the scent we call “musk” gained favor with humans with one little Asian deer, a shy and humble creature that touched off a revolution in human sexuality.

“Shy and humble” aren’t adjectives generally used to describe animals that look like vampires. But though the primitive musk deer makes up for its lack of antlers with freaky fangs, or tusks, used for defending itself against predators and rivals, it is otherwise quite peaceful. The musk deer belongs to an older class of deer than your modern white-tail, and the enlarged canines and absence of antlers are only the most obvious indicators. Others include the presence of a gallbladder; the absence of facial glands; the possession of only one pair of nipples; and, in males, a sexual musk gland located on its belly, near the genitals. For this gland, the otherwise gentle, leaf-browsing musk deer has been chased by hunters through the forests of the southern Himalayas for thousands of years, almost all the way to extinction.

How did humans acquire a lust for the scent of a tiny organ in a small, reclusive deer found only in montane South Asia?

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Web Design

A friend recently asked me about what to do about the black widow that was spinning a web over her entire sliding glass back door. (When you are the naturalist among your friends, you tend to get a lot of extermination questions.) To be perfectly frank, I hate spiders. Whenever I make the conscious choice not to squash a spider on sight, I give myself a little mental cookie, much the way I do when I put an aluminum can in the recycling bin. Call it the Indiana Jones principle: You’re allowed to be creeped out by one type of animal. I don’t understand some people’s fear of snakes, but I can respect tolerate it. I know some bad-ass people who are afraid of rats. I love most animals. Just not spiders.

But I do love a well-spun spiderweb. A dew-dappled spiderweb early in the morning is a thing of supreme beauty, and the silk itself is an awe-inspiring substance. Normal spider silk has the tensile strength of steel, while the silk of the Darwin’s Bark Spider is ten times stronger than Kevlar. Most silk lines are only a few microns across, but if a spider could weave a strand the width of a pencil, that strand could conceivably stop a Boeing 747 in mid-flight. What’s more, spiders are capable of weaving up to 8 different kinds of silk from its spinneret glands: silk for draglines, silk for wrapping egg sacs, silk for wrapping prey, silk for parachutes, etc. And not every web is the classic “spiral orb;” webs are also designed as tubes, funnels, tangles, sheets, and domes.

However, the spider I want to focus on today is an orb-weaver, the Australian St. Andrew’s Cross spider, pictured above. Members of the Argiope family, such as the St. Andrew’s Cross, are often called “garden spiders,” or “writing spiders,” on account of their habit of decorating their webs with flourishes that sometimes resemble language. The name for these decorative markings are stabilimenta.

Argiope aurantia. Don’t read too much into it.

At first glance, the “X” shaped stabilimentum of the St. Andrew’s Cross spider seems to have an obvious purpose: the make the spider’s silhouette less obvious to both predators and prey. But stabilimenta take many forms and shapes with spiders all over the world, and the reasons for them are legion, varied, and mysterious.

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Finally. The one you’ve been waiting for.

The list of bizarre sexual rites in the animal kingdom is almost too numerous and well-documented to enumerate. Even if I were to define “lust” by the quantity of sex a species has, as opposed to just the quality, I’d be writing until you fell out of your chair, stunned by the sheer depravity and shocking variety taking place in the name of sexual selection. For example, lions in heat will mate 20-40 times a day for several days in a row, and the male lion’s corkscrew-shaped penis has backwards-facing barbs which both help him stay attached and rake the vagina to induce estrus. A pig’s orgasm can last half an hour. And how do porcupines make love? Very carefully… and also insatiably, as the female is only in heat for 8-12 hours a year. With only a half-day window of opportunity, the female will mate with a lover until he is exhausted, and then move right on to the next. Conjugal visits begin with foreplay which involves the male hosing the female with urine from six feet away.

My natural pick for an animal to represent “lust” would be the bonobo, a chimp-like ape which uses constant sex as a means of social bonding. However, since I’ve already written about the bonobo in another context, I’ll have to choose something new. Reproduction being essential for life, it’s hard to define “lust” as an over-indulgence in the animal kingdom; animals that procreate often are just fulfilling their biological imperative. But there are a few cases so exceptionally naughty, so blue, so indisputably NSFW that I am forced to admit that, when it comes to the dirty deed, Homo sapiens is a total prude.

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You take everything — the laurel and the rose, too! Go on, take them! But, in spite of you, one thing goes with me now and tonight, when I, at last, God behold… and that’s my panache. -The dying words of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Evolution only requires two thing from us: 1) Reproduction, and 2) Survival, which really only matters if you reproduce. So really, one requirement. It doesn’t matter how long you live; it only matters how many offspring you have, and how fit they are. Of course, if you live longer, you improve your chances of having more offspring. But you’ll really improve your chances of having more offspring if you dress so beautifully, so outrageously that you are constantly flirting with death. In other words, if you have panache.

Panache, that quality so highly prized by Cyrano de Bergerac and swashbucklers everywhere, means “flamboyant confidence of style or manner.” But literally, a panache is the long feather in the cap of a young braggodocio — think of the ostrich plume in the hat of a Musketeer or the pheasant tailfeather in Robin Hood’s archer cap. And when it comes to panache, in every sense of the word, no animal does it better than the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of Papua New Guinea’s many splendid fops.

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