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Deadly Animal Sex -- Part Two

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Truly, there is no end to the inventive and violent mating strategies of animals. If we could all be the proverbial “fly on the wall” of evolution we could witness the selection process for full fatty breasts in women (all other female primates have flat chests and still have the ability to feed their young), or the disappearance of penises in most bird species as they transformed from dinosaurs into the smaller feathered creatures of today. Maybe it would help us understand how the often bizarre sexual acts that have survived for millions of years came to be the most effective in creating offspring.

Sex is the common denominator for diversity. What mates want in a partner—brains, outrageous plumage, huge testicles, red rumps—are what succeeds in the mating game. Such characteristics signal the health, strength and smarts of the contender for sexual favors. (Holy cow! Look at the gazungas on that one!) 

The other determining factor is the competition for mates. Silverbacks, for example, are the largest gorillas, but have unusually small penises (an adult gorilla's erect penis is about 1.5 inches in length) and can satisfy harems of up to 30 female gorillas. Because they’re so big and scary, they haven’t got a lot of male competition. A 400-pound gorilla can afford to have a relatively small penis and testes because the only sperm racing for the female’s ovum will be his own. If they were competing ferociously for the babes they’d have huge 'members' (relative to body size). So penis and testes size is influenced by the degree of male competition—lots of it, big ones—not so much, smaller ones. (Of all the primates, human males have the largest erect penises—on average 6 inches. Just sayin’).

Nature is very efficient—if something works it survives—if it fails it disappears. Bear this in mind as we wander into the weird and painful mating habits of the Giant Squid.

Shoot first, ask questions later

As a child, just seeing a Giant Squid wrestling with a huge whale on the big screen was enough to make me phobic about taking a bath. Water hid monsters. Imagine what I would have thought if I’d seen one of these beasts (up to 70 feet long) stabbing a giant female squid with his three-foot-long penis. Yes, the male actually stabs the female’s tentacles and deposits sperm in the wound. This is the Giant Squid’s version of hot sex. What?!

One of the facts of life for Giant Squids is that they live in the dark depths of the ocean and they rarely meet. When an encounter with the opposite sex does finally occur, the mating method must guarantee that the sperm will be stored for long periods of time—as in under the skin in a tentacle, it seems.  It may be awhile before the female “gets lucky” again.

How the sperm fertilizes the eggs is still unclear. One theory is that the female reopens the wound to retrieve the sperm, or perhaps when the time is right, hormonal cues cause the sperm to migrate to the surface. How egg and sperm become mixed together is unknown. Scientists speculate that once mixed they are probably encased in a huge gelatinous mass that either drifts in the sea or attaches to the ocean bottom. Whatever the process, this has successfully been going on for millions of years.

Okay, this is strange enough, but wait, it gets stranger. A giant male squid was caught off the coast of Norway and had sperm embedded in his skin. When the perp was caught and questioned, this is what he had to say. “Okay, it was dark, I was lonely, I hadn’t seen another Giant Squid in years…I figured shoot first, ask questions later.”

Excuse me, is this your penis?

Argonauts, also known as a paper nautilus, are a species of Octopus. These unusual sea dwelling creatures have extremely different body sizes—the female grows up to 4”, with shells as large as 18”, while the male is only ¾” long. These little guys have a unique feature in the sexual reproduction department—detachable penises. When a male sees the female nautilus of his dreams, he will produce a ball of spermatozoa in a special tentacle that separates from his body and swims to the female attaching to her mantle cavity and fertilizing her eggs. This happens only once in the poor guy’s lifetime. If you want to imagine what this looks like (and you know you do) think of a swimming parasitic worm, which is what an Italian naturalist mistook it for in the 1800s. Really, how could he possibly make such a mistake? Any simple-minded female Argonaut would know a good swimming penis from a useless worm any day.

Danger! Danger!

Speaking of detachable penises, I will close with a bang. A bee bang. Virgin queen bees that survive to adulthood without being killed by their rivals (talk about female competition for getting the guy) will select about a dozen male drones from tens of thousands of eligible suitors (I have no idea what they’re attracted to) and go on a little mating flight. These chosen few get a crack at having their way with the Queen. The thanks one of the drones gets for being successful is that his sperm-transferring member explodes and snaps off inside the Queen. The male dies from being disemboweled. What can possibly be the justification for this? Well…the penis acts as a genital plug guaranteeing that other male drones don’t get to fertilize her. May the best genes win! Isn’t that worth dying for—one heady, explosive moment of love with the Queen? Come on, would you rather be an unfulfilled drone for the rest of your life?

I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. I’m just not that twisted or imaginative. Aren’t we all beginning to feel a little bit sorry for the beleaguered males of the planet? Maybe a little bit more respectful, awed and impressed. What these guys go through! Okay, okay it’s not like the females don’t experience pain and suffering too, being stabbed, wounded and plugged. But sometimes, we gals just seem to sit around on our fat Nautilus shells waiting for a penis to float by.

Coming Attractions:

A few more to go—traumatic bedbug insemination and killer spiders—and maybe a couple of surprises, like snail sex in the head.

Credit: Reviewed by Andrew Streiber, DVM
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