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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Column: Not for kids

Science writer David Quammen once wrote, “Biology has great potential as vulgar entertainment.”

Animals bite, claw, ooze, howl, burrow, spit and parasitize. Nowhere in nature is animal behavior weirder than when it comes to sex. I’ve written this column for two years, and I’ve told stories of earwig ejaculation, swarms of sexed-up frogs and self-blowjobbing bats.

Yet I still run across examples of animal intercourse that make me squirm. Not like that. Let me clarify: these examples make me want to throw up inside and outside of my mouth.

1. Bed bugs

They’re the scourges of the East Coast right now. Bed bugs are spreading from house to house and biting their host humans raw. But what news reports ignore is the completely disturbing way that bed bugs mate.

A male bed bug has a very sharp penis. Male bed bugs are smaller than females, so when they find a female, they climb on her. A male ignores the female’s sex organs and stabs his penis straight into her side.

This process is called “traumatic copulation.”

The male does this because shooting his sperm straight into the female’s bloodstream guarantees that he’ll be the lucky bug to fertilize her eggs. His extremely unlucky mate recovers thanks to a pad of tissue in her abdomen.

2. Flatworms

Flatworms are hermaphroditic – they’ve got both male and female sex organs. In addition to having both sets of junk, they have two penises.

And what do you do if you have two penises?

You swordfight with them.

Because flatworms can both inseminate and be inseminated, they often get in battles to determine who’s going to be the mom. Child-bearing requires more time and energy, so all flatworms want to be the dad and skedaddle.

When it’s time to mate, two flatworms will face each other belly-to-belly. They wave around their duel penises and try to jab each other.

Jab, duck, jab, turn!

Once one flatworm lands a hit, it ejaculates sperm into the other’s skin. This method fertilizes the eggs, and the loser becomes a mom.

3. Earwigs

Also have two penises. Tell your friends.

4. Giraffes

To me, giraffes all look the same: spotted and gangly as hell. But male giraffes look past the surface and use a different sense to pick a mate.

When a male giraffe is in the mood, he’ll follow a female around and wait until she pees. As her urine falls, the male dips his head and gets a mouthful. He does this because he can actually taste the hormones that indicate if the female is ovulating.

Then he mounts her in his awkward giraffe way.

This practice is actually not uncommon. While no one’s measured if human males can taste ovulation hormones, we do know that men can sometimes smell them.

In a 2003 study, scientists found that when men were presented with a t-shirt worn overnight by a woman at the time of ovulation, they said the t-shirt smelled better than a shirt worn at any other time during a woman’s cycle.

In another study, researchers found that men tend to tip lap dancers quite a bit more if the lap dancer is ovulating. The scientists weren’t sure why.

5. Ducks

Male ducks can be pretty violent during intercourse. But while violence is actually pretty common in the wild – corkscrew penises are not.

Most birds do not have penises. Instead, they store little packets of sperm near their cloaca, a tube by the rectum. When they want to mate, the male stands on the female’s back and he passes the sperm to her during what is called a “cloacal kiss.” But male ducks have evolved penises. These things are corkscrew-shaped and can be more than half the duck’s body length. He keeps it coiled up inside himself until go-time.

Scientists used to think that competition between males was the reason for this extreme genitalia; if a male can get his penis farther into the female’s oviduct, he has a better chance of being the one to fertilize her eggs. But now scientists think female ducks might be paving the path of evolution.

In 2007, Patricia Brennan, a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University, published a paper on the anatomy of female ducks. She found that in species where males had long, twisty penises, the females had long, twisty oviducts. When the penis spiraled, the oviduct spiraled in the opposite direction. Some species had oviducts with random pockets.

Brennan hypothesized that female ducks actually have a kind of birth control. If they are forced to mate with an undesirable male, they can force his sperm into one of the dead-end pockets.

Never have I been so glad to be a Homo sapien.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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