Love is in the air!

Spring is coming and soon love will be in the air!  Whether it’s the pheromones of animals or the pollen of plants, the air around us is positively brimming with the scent of reproduction.

Winged creatures like butterflies often engage in courtship flights, dancing around each other as part of a pre-copulation ritual.  The courtship ritual of the bald eagle involves locking talons and tumbling toward earth…  And then there are insects which engage in aerobatic sex, mid air, such as flies and dragonflies.

When it comes to humans (and other animals) we all have a unique smell, a chemical signature that we refer to as pheromones.  They play a role in who we are attracted to which I think is fairly well known, but also, probably lesser known, is that they also help us to identify people we are related to – useful if you want to avoid sleeping with your secret cousin that no one knew about… Having different genetic make up means healthier children and less inbreeding which is why we’ve evolved to detect this.  Couples which are more genetically similar have fewer orgasms which sounds pretty rubbish but things go one step further and couples who are more genetically alike also have a higher rate of cheating…  Basically, evolution is doing everything it can to reduce the chance of inbreeding.

Pheromones are also used to help a guy to detect where in her menstrual cycle a woman is and his body releases testosterone according to ovulation status.

However, the use of hormonal contraception appears to be changing how humans react to these chemical signatures.  When taking birth control pills, the natural ability to distinguish between males who are genetically alike and genetically different is disrupted and instead, women are attracted to the males who are most similar.  Verdolin gives a great example:

“I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!”  She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills.  Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.”

Aside: pheromones are found in underarm hair and public hair so maybe go au naturale if you’re seeking a partner?

Animals use pheromones to communicate with each other, to mark their territory and to induce aggression.  They are also used in parental bonding, to keep group behaviour in check and of course to attract mates – some creatures can even smell out virgins.  They are also used to mark your mate in order to keep away other potential mates.  Squirrels secrete pheromones onto their partners onto their partner to tell other males that she’s taken.  Queen bees use pheromones to control hive behaviour and stop workers from reproducing.  Plants use pheromones to attract pollinators, for example a kind of orchid can mimic bee pheromones to pollinate them.

Male lemmings can not only sniff out a female who’s ready to mate, but they can also distinguish between those who have mated already and those who have not.

“From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.”
– Verdolin

A large number of male creatures will include anti-aphrodisiac pheromones in their bodily secretions so that the female they are mating will have less interest in sex.  The pheromones can also make her less attractive to other males.

What of other ways that love is in the air?  Well, plants can reproduce in a couple of ways, both involving the air; insect pollination and wind pollination.  The latter means that large amounts of pollen are released to the breeze in the hope that they find another plant to fertilise.  Whilst this does mean hayfever for many of us, it’s nice to think that it’s all in the aid of making baby trees and flowers!

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The Virgin Marys of the Animal Kingdom; they don’t need no man!

Let’s start with a couple of basic definitions!  There are lots of more specific and technical terms that I could go into but I won’t.  Suffice to say, if you are interested in the biological processes at work, there is information out there on that.  For my purposes, I think there are probably just two definitions we need to be familiar with:

Parthenogenesis is a type of asexual reproduction in which a female gamete or egg cell develops into an individual without fertilisation.

In asexual reproduction, one individual produces offspring that are genetically identical to itself.

Thought Co

It all gets very complicated at a cellular level and not being a biologist I wouldn’t want to even attempt to explain it but I wanted to make sure that it was clear that parthenogenesis and asexual reproduction are not always interchangeable.

The word parthenogenesis means virgin creation and these virgin births are known to occur in a range of species including many insects, snakes, lizards, Komodo dragons and even, rarely, in turkeys.  In lab conditions, mammals have had virgin births but only when artificially helped by researchers.

To help us understand the realities of being a virgin mother, I wanted to look at a few examples, starting with a population of Bynoes gecko in Australia gave up entirely on sexual reproduction and are now an all-female species.  This type of reproduction tends to occur in harsh climates – arid deserts and arctic areas – and are almost exclusively hybrids.  The thinking is that the population of one species got split and evolved separately before coming back together.  The two groups then reproduced sexually, creating sterile hybrids who over time evolved to reproduce without sex.

On a spectrum of reproduction, it’s possible that whiptail lizards would come next.  There are as many as 50 types of whiptail lizard that reproduce without sex, but despite this, the exclusively female New Mexico whiptail still engage in ‘fake sex’ to be stimulated in order to reproduce.  Whilst not essential, the lizards that are stimulated lay more eggs.

Then there are the animals that engage in both types of reproduction.  Queen bees produce male drones by parthenogenesis but workers are made by sexually reproducing with drones.  Boa constrictors normally reproduce sexually, but not always and komodo dragons, sharks, turkeys and swordfish also primarily reproduce sexually but parthenogenesis can account for up to 5% of babies.  Note that it some species, females are able to store sperm for a considerable length of time after encountering a male and so genetic testing is required to confirm parthenogenesis.

The advantage of asexual reproduction is that a female can restart a population in the absence of a male – think about a female which has found itself on an island with no other creatures of the same species.  It’s also easier for an initially small population to take over an area.  Other benefits include not having to expend energy finding, attracting and keeping a mate and when babies are born, they are made up solely from mums genes.

Whilst an all female population sounds enticing, there are downsides…  clones are unable to evolve and adapt genetically to change, there is an increase risk of being affected by parasites and disease.  As the entire population are all vulnerable to the same external factors, one small factor can result in them all dying.  As I noted above, mammals don’t naturally engage in parthenogenesis – we can’t reproduce without male and female dna… even just one missing gene can result in conditions such as angelmans syndrome and prada willi syndrome.

On the whole, species that reproduce without sex, don’t last that long:

“from time to time organisms evolve to give up sex, reproducing asexually instead.  When this happens, any genetic differences between a parent and a child are, by definition, due to mutation only.  At first asexual organisms often flourish.  But their glory is fleeting.  For reasons that remain mysterious, the loss of sex is almost always followed by swift extinction,  apparently, without sex you are doomed.”
– Olivia Judson

Of course, there are always exceptions, and in this case, one of the exceptions is the bdelloid rotifer which is an all female species that has been cloning itself for about 85 million years (Judson).  To overcome the problem of identical genetics, they get new genes by picking up DNA from the environment.  This protects them from the main dilemmas facing most parthenegenic species.

Suggested Reading:

Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

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?

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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.

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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:

Women who love men who kill

I’ve been reading a lot about crime and murder recently and one of the reoccurring themes has been how men who have carried out horrific crimes don’t have a problem finding women.  In fact, women seem to throw themselves at these, often self professed, killers.  This was the case even when the men had killed their wife and children, and when they were on death row awaiting execution.

Given that this seemed to be an actual phenomenon, I wanted to know more.  What takes ordinary, every day women and makes them a) reach out to these men and b) then fall in love with them?

An important point to make here is that I’m talking about women who didn’t know the men before they were found guilty of their crimes.  For example, in the UK in 2001, Charles Bronson who has the title of “Britain’s most notorious prisoner”, married a woman who would later go on to lose her job because of the marriage.  They would go on to get divorced but by 2017 he was in another relationship and had married again. In the US, a journalist doing a story on the death penalty, met and fell in love with Billy Sinclair whose crimes included murder and rape.  The woman, who was married at the time, lost her husband and her children because of her relationship with the prisoner.

These are not isolated incidents, they seem to be commonplace for notorious male criminals.  A 2003 Guardian article says that more than 100 British women are engaged or married to men on death row in the US.  And that’s just British women and men in the US on death row.

So what is it that drives these women?

Well, obviously the answer is complicated, as it is whenever we’re dealing with human behaviour.  But predictably, there are some trends although there also seems to be a lack of research into the area.

Sheila Isenberg, in a 1991 profile of women who love men who kill, found that they tended to be “little girls lost, reared in dysfunctional families where they were victims of abuse at the hands of harsh dictatorial fathers aided by passive mothers.”  Whilst I don’t want to rule this profile out completely, it feels like a fraudian hypothesis and I don’t feel it explains many of the women in question.

Looking at how women meet men in prison may give us some insight into why they fall for them.  Anecdotally, there seem to be a few patterns. There are the women who see a man in the media and something captivates them, compelling them to make contact with that particular criminal.  There are women who write to criminals through official programmes and go on to fall for them.  And there are women who come into face to face contact such as through volunteering or working at the prison.  Knowing this alone, I feel we can rule out Isenberg’s profile as universally applicable.

Intuitively, it feels like the women who write to criminals through official programmes or who volunteer in prisons have a different motivation or reason for falling in love, coming into proximity for charitable or humanitarian reasons.  Women who contact a specific criminal after media presence would be more focused on establishing a relationship with that particular person.  The other women, perhaps, just happening to get feelings for a person they were getting to know.

Marrying or being in a relationship with a prisoner comes with a high price tag.  We’ve already seen women losing their job and their family but there is also a loss of respect in the community, loss of friends and wider family, isolation, damaged reputation and the years of pain you spend apart from the person you love.  This is alongside the advocacy and fundraising role that many of these women take on as they champion their partner’s innocence and manage their legal case, all of which takes time and money and emotional toll.

Given this, the pull towards the men must be immensely powerful.  Why else would you give up so much to be in a relationship with someone you can never spend time with?

Well, that may be the draw for some women.  There is an element of safety when you are in love with someone behind bars.  They can never hurt you, at least physically or sexually.  It also allows the honeymoon period to last forever, allowing women to stay in love with a fantasy and not having to risk the mundane day to day of life bursting that bubble.  This idea of having the perfect boyfriend may appeal to women who’ve been hurt in the past by partners or who have a history of abuse.

Perhaps the phenomena of women who love men who kill could be put down, in some cases, to extreme fanaticism.  Indeed, the more infamous the killer, the more interest the killer has from women.

Some women feel powerful because of their role in their partners life.  To a certain extent the prisoner is dependant on the woman and feeling in control of a powerful man can bring a thrill.

Another thrill may come from the attention and fame that arises as a result of being married or in a relationship with someone notorious.  It may also fulfil a need in the woman for danger and drama.  There is a soap opera element to these relationships – the unfulfilled love, the longing and yearning that comes with such situations and of course the controversial and taboo aspect of it.  There’s also the ever present questions of will I get into the prison to see him, when will I see him, will he get parole, what’s happening to him, when will he get an execution date… All of which creates drama and cliffhangers.

In some cases there seems to be a sense of the two of you vs the world which creates a powerful bond and perhaps this is what attracts women to the outlaws.  Another, more sinister theory is that the women themselves would want to carry out murder but for whatever reason can’t and they live out their killing fantasies through their partner.

“Women may be sublimating their murderous eroticism by making connections with men who have committed murder.”
– Peter Morrall, Murder and Society

A seemingly common explanation is the idea that the woman can change the man.  That they see something special in them that no one else does and if they just nurtured and cared for the criminal they would be a changed man.  This delusion of being a saviour may apply more commonly to the women who have written to or volunteered with criminals as a way of converting people to their religion.  In the case of Ted Bundy, women writing to him tend to be lonely, religious and looking to get him on the right path.

We must remember that a number of these men will be psychopaths and psychopaths can be charming.  They can make you feel special, they can make you feel like they’ve chosen you and they can manipulate your behaviour, such as by sharing things with you that they haven’t shared with anyone else.  Inside prison, there is reduced opportunities to play with people’s lives and this may be one way they can do so.  One case I read about involved the man getting a woman to fall for him and then when he was bored or had had enough, he’d end things abruptly, with no regard for her.

“Women who get emotionally involved with prisoners almost always end up rejecting the idea that this man could have committed the crimes for which he was convicted.”
Independant, 2005

If they don’t reject the idea, then they are able to make excuses for the crimes, or rewrite history to reduce the man’s role or involvement or motives.  This is evidenced by the time and money and effort that women put into championing their loved one and the level of obsession that some women get to when trying to prove their innocence or improve their living conditions.

For some women, there may be an attraction to the display of manliness expressed in their crimes.  Taken to the far end of this is hybristophilia where sexual arousal is responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner who is known to have committed something wrong, whether it’s as ‘mild’ as lying or cheating or as ‘strong’ as murder.  One person in a 2016 article said that the details of the crime are a turn on, with another quoted as saying the criminals “give in to the animal, uninhibited selves, and I love the rawness of that.”  Whilst this probably accounts for some of the women who love men who kill, hybristophilia is thought to be quite uncommon and is defined by arousal so won’t apply to all.

Despite these hypothesises, this seems to be an under-researched area, lacking in statistics and quantifiable evidence, instead conclusions appear to have been drawn from qualitative sources.  Perhaps this is because of greater priorities, perhaps it is because whilst the number of women is shockingly high, the harm caused is comparatively minimal.  Or, perhaps it is because research is still a patriarchal arena.  Regardless, I have found it a fascinating look into the human psyche and what drives us to do the things we do.