A recipe for life

“Hence without parents by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth”
– E. Darwin, 1803

Spontaneous generation is the idea that life can arise from non living material at any given moment and one of the earliest references I found to the concept was from Anaximander in the 3rd century BC.  Not long after, Aristotle was writing in the 4th century about eels.  They troubled him as he could find no trace of their sex.  He concluded that eels “proceeds neither from pair, nor from an egg” but that instead they were born of the “earth’s guts”, that is spontaneously emerging from mud.  Aristotle believed that worm casts were actually embryonic eels boiling out of the ground.  Pliny the Elder had another idea, that eels would rub themselves against rocks and the scrapings would come to life.  Other eel theories included young emerging from the gills of fish, from dew or being created by electrical disturbances.  The reason that eels caused natural history such issues is because of their lifecycle which starts out at sea, away from the eyes of man.

Aristotle also thought that spontaneous generation applied to a few other creatures, often small, including flies and frogs, which were considered to be lower life forms.  Some were thought to be produced in putrefying mud and dung, in wood, in excrement, and dew.  Later, naturalists would claim that insects spontaneously generated out of old wax, vinegar, damp dust and books.  Even decaying larger animals were thought to generate these smaller lifeforms.  Horses were thought to be transmogrified into hornets, crocodiles into scorpions, mules into locusts and bulls into bees.  Rats were said to come from garbage, aphids from bamboo, flies from sweat and ants from sour wine.

Athanasius Kircher included ‘recipes’ for life in his 1665 book, for example, to create frogs, you needed to collect clay from a ditch where frogs have lived, incubate it in a large vessel, add rainwater and voila!

Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century tells us how to make poisonous, predatory arachnids; fill a hole in a brick with basil, cover with a second brick and leave in the sun.  To make mice, he instructs us to place wheat and water in a flask, cover with the skirt of an unclean woman, leave for 21 days and there you’ll have baby mice.  Another mouse suggestion was that they emerged from the earth and in some places you could see them fully formed as far as the breast and front feet, the rest still just mud.

To make flies, you collect fly cadaver’s, crush them slightly, put them on a brass plate and sprinkle with honey water.  You can make bees by killing a bull, putting the corpse on branches and herbs during spring and by summer you’d have your bees.  Oysters would grow from slime, cockles from sand and salamanders from fire.

Whilst all of this sounds absurd to us today, if you put yourself in their shoes, I think you’d struggle to find a better theory.  After all, caterpillars don’t have parents that resemble them, and when they die (turn into a chrysalis), they create a butterfly.  Mushrooms grow from dead logs, mould appears out of nowhere and then there are the ‘annual’ fishes of Africa and South America:

“Their lifestyle is almost magical.  They live in puddles, ponds and ditches that dry up for part of the year.  When the puddles dry up, they die.  Only their eggs survive, buried under the dried mud, waiting for the next rains.  Collect mud, add water – and presto, you get fish.  You can see why people believed in spontaneous generation.”
– Olivia Judson

Over time, the idea of spontaneous generation began to be questioned.  In 1646 a sceptic was ridiculed for questioning the idea but Francesco Redi would seek to disprove the idea that maggots grew out of raw meat with experiments in the 17th century (he still believed that living matter could create other living matter eg trees creating wasps and gallflies).  Unfortunately, his results were questioned, holes were poking in the methods and John Needham would go onto ‘prove’ via another experiment that spontaneous generation was of course real.  Needham’s experiment took gravy and heated it, then sealed the end of the flask and the idea was that nothing could survive the heat or get it as it was sealed.  When life started to form, Needham was validated in his belief.  However, he hadn’t heated the flask high enough to kill the bacteria enclosed in it so they survived the process.

Other people would work at disproving spontaneous generation including Lazzaro Spallanzani who built on the work of Redi, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came onto the scene in the 19th century that the theory was conclusively disproved.

Ultimately, by investigating the theory of spontaneous generation, we would come across pasteurisation and the field of microbiology would be born.

Suggested Reading:

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Death by sex

Having talked a lot about animal sex recently, I felt it important to tip my hat to some of those creatures out there that really have the sex of their lives… Forget chocolate, these animals die because of sex, often just after copulation but even midway through the ‘romantic’ act…

How to make love to a cannibal?  Carefully.  The most touted example of cannibalistic love is the praying mantis, a species well known for females eating males after sex.  But they often go one step further and eat their mate during the act… This might seem counter-intuitive but in doing so, they get their eggs fertilised and have more fun.  Obviously the male is a bit scared and tentative as they approach and assume the position, not the best attributes for a good romp…  If however, you bite off their head… the male’s body goes into spasms which allow for sperm to be delivered and the joys of vibrations.

“Females in more than eighty other species have been caught eating their lovers before, during, or after sex.  Spiders are the most common culprits, although several other mantises, some scorpions, and certain midges also number among the guilty.”
– Olivia Judson

For orb-weaving spiders, pheromones play a key role in the male’s willingness to be cannibalised by his mate…

“When exposed to mated females, males attempt to escape much more often than those exposed to virgins.  The latter show a tendency to self-sacrifice in the name of biological fitness.”
– Carin Bondar

The combination of sex and cannibalism is attractive to some females because not only can they get their eggs fertilised but they can also have a great, nutritious meal, perfect for keeping the mum to be healthy.  To avoid death, some species of spiders which practice sexual cannibalism, males have evolved to break off their genitalia, thus plugging up the female in the hopes that it will be their sperm used in fertilising eggs.

Similarly, when male honeybees climax, their genitals are ripped from their body – the idea is that leaving behind your genitals in the queen prevents other males from mating with her and thus ensures her young are yours.  Obviously once the genitalia has been forcefully ripped from the males, they die.

It’s a big of a grey area in terms of death but in some species, the males commit themselves so much to the task of mating that they lose a sense of  themselves.  Take for example the angler fish, the males are much smaller than the females and they search the seas for a mate.  Once a female has been found, they will bite into her underbelly and fuse themselves to her permanently.

In some species, it’s the males that get carried away and kill or severely injure the females…  A flock of sheep on Ile Longue have been left to their own devices and the result is that ewes are chased and battered by the rams.  Once pinned down the males try to mount her repeatedly for hours.  If she’s lucky and the injuries and exhaustion haven’t killed her, she risks being disembowelled by giant petrels…

For some frog species, sex is a bit of an orgy.  Females gather in pools to mate, they release eggs into the water and the males squirt in their sperm.  If a female has attracted several males, they all push and shove so its their sperm that get to fertilise the eggs.  As they do so, there is a risk that the female drowns or is crushed.  A similar situation arises for some solitary bees and wasps; when the females emerge from their burrows, they are greeted by a hoard of males, all desperate to mate and in that desperation, she may end up dead.

In the rough sex gone wrong category, we can also find southern elephant seals who may end up killing their lovers by biting females on the head instead of the neck and dog mink who pierce the base of the brain instead of grabbing the scruff of the neck.

There is also the salmon, where both males and females die shortly after scattering their eggs and sperm to the rivers.  This strategy of using up all your energy and resources is called semalparity, or suicidal reproduction and is also practised by the antechinus.  The males of this species engage in an active sex frenzy for about 14 hours, and in doing so destroy their immune systems.  After mating, a lot, they suffer from internal bleeding, collapse and die.

Basically, life is tough, and sex can be tougher…  Next up I’ll be looking at parenting in the natural world; do dads play a role? who has it hardest? who engages in infantcide?

Suggested Reading:

Wren

“Tiny, plump bird, mainly russet-brown with a pale breast.  It is constantly on the move and has a very loud trilling song that is heard throughout the year.”
– Peter Tate

Whilst today we tend to think of the robin as Britain’s favourite bird, the wren is a stronger contender for the title.  They were found on farthings, featured on stamps, and as we’ll see there’s a range of folklore about them.  But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wren itself.

They are very helpful to us as they eat insects and spiders, and their small size allows them into little cracks and crevices that other birds can’t get to.  In winter, food is scarcer, possibly hidden under heaps of snow or frozen soil.  Because of their size, they are vulnerable to the cold and combat this by huddling together and becoming more friendly as the weather turns.  This increased sociability is important as a cold winter can kill anything from a quarter to three quarters of the population.  However, when times are better, males are territorial and defend their patch from other males.  There is a season for coming together and a season for putting yourself first.

Despite being one of the UK’s most widespread birds, found almost everywhere except the most remote or highest parts of the country, it is more often heard rather than seen.  There is an invisibility here, an ability to slip between worlds that reminds me of shamans.

Little Jenny wren, small and inconspicuous, has a surprisingly powerful voice.  This is because they have an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and can make use of virtually all of the air in their lungs.

I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.

“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.””
Jay Griffiths

One lesson of the wren, is that your voice is much more powerful than you think, speak up, sing loudly, don’t let your (perceived) smallness stop you.  What you have to say matters, it will make a difference.

“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”
– Ussher & Warren (1900)

There may also be a message here around focusing on what you hear, not what you see.  I’ve mentioned our vision-centricness before and how important it can be to tune into all our senses.  Play some music, light a candle, whatever it is that helps you connect to yourself and feel grounded.

Once lucky enough to have seen off other males and found a female to mate with, the male wren presents the female with a choice of nests.  She selects her preferred one and lines it with feathers.  Once the little eggs are hatched, both parents take a role in feeding the chicks.  It was this cooperative behaviour that led older societies to associate the wren with sharing the work load.  Today it may be a reminder not to get stuck into gendered ideas of who should do what household tasks.  Share the work and play to your strengths, even if they aren’t what stereotypes suggest you should be doing.

A Wren’s Nest by William Wordsworth starts with a beautiful stanza describing the wren’s nest, a place of comfort and of safety, snug and cosy.  The protective feeling of being wrapped up warm in blankets.

AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren’s
In snugness may compare.

Much of what I read about the wren, and know from my own observations, suggests a delight in the seemingly ordinary, an enchantment with life, an enthusiasm and a joy that comes just from being in the world.  This is definitely something we can all learn from.  What brings you alive?  What makes your heart sing?  What feeds your soul? What nourishes your heart?

When it comes to folklore, the best place to start is the name.  The latin name is Troglodtyes Troglodyes and means cave dweller whilst the word wren comes from the anglo saxon word wrœnno which means lascivious.

A common, much repeated piece of wren folklore is about the king or queen of the birds.  A Scottish tale of the eagle and the wren involves all the birds gathering and deciding they wanted a queen, but it was impossible to decide on who.  Some wanted eagle, others wanted wren and eventually wren suggested a test to decide the matter, whichever of the them could fly the highest would be queen.  Everyone was sick of talking about it so agreed, even though it seemed an odd suggestion from little wren.  Both birds took to the air.  When wren had got as high up as her little wings could take her, she landed very softly on eagles back.  Eagle continued to fly higher and higher until she could go no higher.  When she returned to the ground, the birds declared that eagle would be their queen as she flew the highest.  The wren poked her head out of eagle’s feathers and said that no, it should be her because when eagle could fly no more, she had flapped off eagles back and thus had flown higher.  Whilst I feel like this was a great case of intellect over physical size, the other birds didn’t agree and said that eagle was their queen.  Similar tales are found around the world, including Ireland and a version from Zulu lore.  Some versions centre around finding a king but I like the idea of the wren as queen better!

“The robin red breast and the wren, Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”

The wren as queen is also echoed in the idea of the robin and wren as god’s birds.  Traditionally, the wren has been seen as the wife of the robin and where robin is said to have brought fire to the land, the wren is said to have brought water.  Because of this duality, you might want to consider the robin as well.

In Scotland the wren is called ‘The Lady of Heaven’s hen’ and if maltreated cows milk would be stained with blood. Similarly, French peasants supposedly called it poulette de Dieu, or god’s chicken, and thought that the wren was at the stable when Jesus was born and had covered him in moss and feathers.

Other beliefs around this little bird include it being lucky if a wren’s feather falls on you, if you hear one singing it’s a sign of good fortune and it was thought that wren feathers would protect you against various perils, especially if you were at sea.

Unfortunately, other stories around the wren and the sea aren’t so positive, at least not for the wren herself.  It was thought that a sea sprite haunted shoals of herring and could conjure up storms before flying away in the form of a wren.  Obviously, this didn’t make the wren popular among some fisherfolk…  In fact, Manx fishermen took dead wrens to sea with them as protection from the storms.

They may also have been concerned because of a story from the Isle of Man about a fairy, who was really a siren, that so beautiful and had such a lovely voice that she lured and charmed many men, drowning them.  Eventually a brave knight was able to withstand her and tried to destroy her but she escaped in the form of a wren.  After this, she was condemned to appear in this form each year until a mortal could succeed in killing her.

This led to the strange annual practice of hunting the wren, a tradition associated with St Stephens day.  A wren was killed, hung on a pole and carried in procession.  everyone who gave the bearers money got a feather for protection.  This was carried out beyond the Isle of Man and we have an associated rhyme which comes from Ireland:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the furze
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake
Or give us a copper, for charity’s sake

Despite, or because of, this idea of the wren as powerful and destructive, we have superstitions which protect the wren.  In England, to kill a wren, or to disturb its nest would mean you’d have bad fortune by the end of the year.  If you tried to steal wren’s eggs or chicks, your home would be struck by lightening.  The latter is explained by one blogger as being because the wren was sacred to the thunder god Taranis who used lightning as a weapon for protection.  It was also said the wren was sacred to Taliesin, the great bard from welsh mythology, quite possibly because of the wren’s beautiful song which, like the nightingale, inspired poets and musicians across time.

Another illustration of the wren’s power is seen when the evil forces of the deep dark cold days of winter are appeased by a sacrificed wren.  You really shouldn’t go overlooking something or someone just because of their size.  If this little bird can summon storms and banish winter, what can you do?

The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

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.

Suggested reading:

Bighorn Sheep

“Is it time to let go of your current footing in order to end up on new and improved ground?”
– Animal Allies

 

Bighorn sheep are found in north America, and like bison, there used to be vast number of them but due to hunting and disease spread by domestic sheep, by 1900 instead of millions, there were just a few thousand left.

The depletion of bighorn sheep due to human activity has resulted in more than just fewer sheep, it has changed their behaviour.  Bighorn sheep learn to migrate from one another, passing down knowledge and wisdom through the generations.  This ancestral information takes many years to gather and can’t easily be replaced.  When migration routes are altered by human activity, or when bighorn sheep are moved because it’s more convenient for us, the sheep suffer.  It takes a lot of years to build up the detailed information they need.  It’s not just the route they need to figure out, it’s where and when the fresh shoots emerge as this gives them the best nutrition that is most easily digested.  Whilst you might intuitively expect the bighorn sheep to be following the lush vegetation, they actually ‘surf the greenery’ by anticipating it.

As well as a lesson in conservation, we can learn about valuing ancestral wisdom, about respecting and honouring our elders and about how deep knowledge takes time to build up.  This is information that goes beyond just reading or learning it, it is understanding it and embodying it.  This is a long process, one that involves building on what you have in an incremental way.  It is also a reminder about the importance of cultural preservation.

Bighorn sheep have, as I think is obvious, horns…!  Rams have long, curved horns and ewes have smaller, straighter horns.  The horns are a symbol of status amongst the sheep, as well as a useful weapon.  As with other horned or antlered animals, this suggests a link to the higher plane, to gods and goddesses, an antennae that receives messages from the other world.  This ties in with Aries, the zodiac sign which is associated with the ram and represented by the horns.  Aries is the first sign of the zodiac and is a sign of new beginnings, of new starts and of action.  It’s about diving in headfirst, about charging in and about acting without thinking.  Determination, assertiveness, and initiation are important keywords as well.  Aries is also associated with Mars, the planet of war.

And the bighorn males do use their horns for conflict.  Prior to mating, males will establish a hierarchy of dominance to figure out who gets to mate with who.  This involves rutting, horn clashing, head butting and generally facing your opponents head on.  Thankfully the rams have acquired a thick skull which protects against injury during these fights.  Thus they teach us both that there are times to face things directly, to charge in head on and also, if you are going to do this, prepare for your adversary’s response.  If you are letting your tongue go wild with insults, expect some back.  If you are giving it out, grow a thicker skin.

That said, head on battles aren’t the only way.  There are three main ways of courting; a) ‘tending’ is where you find yourself a ewe and defend her from other males; b) fighting for a female that’s already being tended and c) blocking is where you prevent a ewe from even reaching the tending area.  If you play things strategically, you may be able to minimise the amount of physical clashes you are involved with.

The terrain of the bighorn sheep is certainly worth noting here.  They live on alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and foothills and are incredibly well adapted to climbing steep terrain which gives them protection from predators.  Their hooves are well designed for balance and grip, making them good climbers and jumpers.  They are surefooted even on slippery, scree covered slopes and only need a small space to get a toe hold.  The bighorn can take opportunities that others can’t and do so with less risk and more confidence.  This is a reminder to us to seize opportunities, to take leaps and to trust our ability to move into new areas of life with confidence.  As Aries reminds us, this is a time to act, to move, to jump.  Don’t wait, don’t overthink this, just do it!

As prey animals, bighorn sheep have evolved to have sharp hearing, a highly developed sense of smell and wide set eyes which provide a large angle of vision.  This means that its hard for anything to creep up on them, they are watchful creatures which are constantly keeping their senses alert to danger.  This is helped by their large social groups where there is safety in numbers.

The bighorn sheep is one of the most admired creatures of the Apsaalooka, or Crow, people and they have a number of sacred myths about them.  One myth explains how bighorn sheep saved a young man, imbued him with their qualities – power, wisdom, sharp eyes, surefootedness, keen ears, great strength and a strong heart.  He then returned to his people and instructed them that the river, known as bighorn river, must not have its name changed.  If they did change the name, the crow people would be no more.  Other myths focus on the virility of the bighorn sheep and how they can be a symbol of male success in both hunting and in sexual activities.

In general, this card feels like it has a very traditionally male vibe going on.  The horns are most notable on the males, the association with aries and mars is traditionally male and almost everything I discovered about the bighorn sheep was focused on the rams.  That being said, when it came to ancestral knowledge and the passing of wisdom from one generation to another, the literature talked more about the maternal line.  I think the message this card has for you today, and the success of how you implement the teachings, will depend on whether you take these traits as separate, or whether you work to combine them together in a more holistic way.