This article was originally published in the Temple Bell
In April, scientists announced that they had discovered females with penises. The neotrogla is an insect that lives only in Brazilian caves and lives on bat guano. It reproduces in a painful case of sexual role reversal: the female mounts the male (rare in the animal kingdom) and sticks her long, barbed penis into her partner. Using her large penis, she sucks his sperm into her body in a process that can last up to 70 hours.
There seems to be no end to the variety of mating rituals in the animal world. Every species has developed its own way of passing on its genes. Each variation is an adaptation based on size, shape, predators, and social structure. It’s fascinating. Sex comes in a huge variety of packages all across the world. For this Beltane season, I thought it would be fun to see how our brothers and sisters in the animal world pass on their genes.
Let’s start with the honey bee. Bees have little use for males beyond fertilization. A queen bee chooses her favorite 12 or so drones and goes on a mating flight with them. The males who get to mate with the queen aren’t as lucky as they seem, though. When their genitals enter the queen, they explode and snap off inside her. At the end of the flight, you get one impregnated queen and up to 12 dead males with exploded genitals.
Flatworms and banana slugs are hermaphrodites. Every individual is both a male and a female, which means they have to decide who plays which role in reproduction. Flatworms duke it out. Each worm has a penis, so before they get to use it to mate, they use it to fight. The partners engage in a battle known as “penis fencing,” in which they use their penises to fight for the right to impregnate each other. The “loser” has to get fertilized and carry the babies.
Banana slugs, which are so abundant in northern California that they are the mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz, are less concerned about who plays which role and more concerned about size. Their Latin name is dolichophallus, which means “giant penis.” A banana slug’s penis can be as long as the slug itself, up to eight inches. To mate, the partners must carefully consider whether the prospective partner can handle their rather large genitalia. This is important, because if the slug playing the “female” role is too small, the penis can get stuck inside her. When this happens, the lady had no choice but to chew off her partner’s phallus. Choose wisely, men.
All whiptail lizards are female, which presents a predicament for reproduction. The lizards first have pretend sex – one female mounts another and simulates copulation. This apparently stimulates egg production. They switch roles so that both get properly stimulated. Then each lizard lays eggs which hatch as exact clones of their mothers.
Birds often build nests, but the male bowerbird takes special pride in his interior design. To attract a mate, the male birds build big, elaborate nests, known as “bowers,” out of all the objects they can find. They have been known to decorate with everything from flowers and berries to coins, plastic, and glass. The female chooses her partner based on his design skills. Watch this video of the process to really appreciate the bowerbird’s design prowess.
Clownfish (which you remember from Finding Nemo) can change their sex. Size matters. The largest clownfish in a group gets to be the female. The next largest is the lucky male who gets to breed with her. All the other fish in the relationship are just there to watch. When the female dies, the largest male assumes the role of breeding female while the next largest male becomes her new partner.
Anglerfish also appear in Finding Nemo. The big, dark, scary fish from the movie were all females. Male anglerfish are so small that they appear to be parasites hitching a ride on their female partners. When a male is born, it must find a female to feed off of or it will die. When they attach to a female, they are able to merge their circulatory systems in a way that is mutually advantageous. She gives him her food. He gives her his sperm.
Male giraffes are only interested in sex if they can make a baby. If he might be in the mood, a male giraffe will bend his neck down and stimulate a female’s rear end to produce urine. Once that’s accomplished, he will taste the lady’s excretions. If she is in estrus, he’ll know and pursue her further. If not, he’ll leave her alone.
Female hyenas have “pseudopenises,” which they can make erect whenever they want. Interested males have to insert their “real” penises into the female’s pseudopenis in order to accomplish mating. Ultimately, though, the female has to give birth through her pseudopenis.
The porcupine mating period lasts only a few hours a year. With such a short window, the male needs to know that his intended is in the mood. To do this, he approaches her on his hind legs and proceeds to saturate her with a giant stream of urine. If she’s in the mood, she’ll lie on her back (important for a porcupine) and allow him to mate with her. If not, she’ll complain and walk away.
Next time you see a snail in your yard, contemplate just how it hard it is for them to mate. While snails are classified as hermaphrodites, they are not able to impregnate themselves. Instead, they have genitals right behind their eyes. Before they get together, they shoot “love darts” into each other. The darts are covered in mucus, which seems to allow snails to retain more sperm in order to fertilize the next generation.
Water striders are those tiny insects that tread the top of lakes and pools of water, and their reproduction habits are dangerous. While mating, the male water strider taps his feet against the surface of the water in a way that attracts predators. Scientists seem to think that the purpose of this is to make the process go quickly. Neither one of them wants to stick around to become dinner, so they finish their business quickly and go their separate ways.
Perhaps the strangest animal mating ritual is that of the duck. These peaceful, swimming birds hide a rather violent, aggressive mating style. First of all, male ducks (drakes) are notorious for aggressively attacking their females in groups of up to three boys. Female ducks do choose their own partners, but males are so driven to pass on their genes that they often gang up to attack an unwilling female.
The male duck is one of a very few of bird species that has a penis. In fact, it has a gigantic one. A drake’s genitals can be up to 17 inches long and is twisted like a corkscrew. Since the boys are in competition with each other, their long organs have a brush on the end which is used to wipe away the sperm deposited by other men. So when you watch three drakes attacking a female, remember that only the last one really has a chance to reproduce.
But the female has the last choice. It turns out that the inside of her sex organs is a twisted maze of canals. There are even dead ends. If an undesired partner deposits his sperm, she can hold it in one of these false pouches and get rid of it later. Only the desired father gets to fertilize his partner for real.
It’s easy to see all this in a very lighthearted way, but maybe it’s more important to realize that sex and fertility appear across the animal world in a never ending variety of forms. Just about every possible expression of sexuality that you can think of exists in the animal kingdom. Sexuality appears in all shapes and sizes across the animal kingdom, just as it does in humanity. The only rule seems to be: Are you doing what is right for you?