Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex. Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!
The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction. We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity. That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post. To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.
If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye. A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female. Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers. For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood… Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females. A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it. Whether they want to or not. Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.
In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs. For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share. In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.
If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.
Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case. A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…
“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree. Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook
We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one. This is not the case. And biologically it makes sense. If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality. Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with. For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!
“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right. They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply. With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar
When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse. Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these. Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm! The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!
Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course). Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off… For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:
“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
– Susan Lawler
But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly. The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!
We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all. scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species. Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric… But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…
There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex. For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally. Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…
The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex. Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.
In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females. Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves! That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production… As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.
All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce. And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.