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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Column: Life, Sex and Everything

It’s that time of year again. The end of the second week of the year’s shortest month is rolling around and people are thinking a little bit less about school, and a little bit more about a story with birds and bees. I always found that particular metaphor funny because apart from some vague similarities — like how some birds are pretty, sing and set up nests with partners, and bees are often associated with a drive to “sting” anything that moves — the analogy doesn’t translate very well to people.

For instance, I can’t find any documentation of birds pairing off, turning up the Marvin Gaye, and getting it on. Maybe I’m a bit of a gooey romantic, but I can’t help but get at least a little excited for this time of year. It might not be everybody’s favorite; it feels a bit arbitrary. But even if it is arbitrary, it still gives me time to reflect on love and partnership.

Since the dawn of sex, there’s been great incentive to do two things: find a quality mate and convey that one is worth mating with. Thus, courtship was born. Whether it be sending flowers and chocolates to a spouse’s work, or having the biggest and most colorful tail feathers, forces of nature have brought about a multitude of ways for different species to seek … tail.

Animals will go to extraordinary lengths to find a mate. The majestic Kakapo of New Zealand, for instance, is a species of flightless parrot. Upon reaching sexual maturity, young males are known to travel to the edge of the forest, hollow out a bowl in the dirt and then hum the opening bars of Dark Side of the Moon for hours on end in search of a mate.

The Australian Lyrebird is a species with a particularly developed syrinx. To put this organ in mammalian terms, we humans are familiar with a larynx, or a flap of tissue in the throat that oscillates when air passes by it, allowing speech. A bird’s syrinx is largely the same, except that birds possess two, one for each lung. In the case of the Great Lyre, the bird’s mating ritual involves building a mound, standing on it and using its great syrinx to literally repeat every loud noise that it can remember, ranging from other birds’ calls to ambient human noises like camera equipment, conversations or noises from chainsaws and highways.

There exists a species of beetle whose sole goal is to push around the largest quantity of excrement possible for the sake of impressing a mate. Some human males also enjoy collecting large amounts of shit — or spewing large amounts of bullshit.

Salmon are known to swim thousands of miles to return to their streams where they were born to mate.

Animals have found all kinds of ways to broadcast inherent mating quality, for instance some bird species change their diets to include larger portions of a specific variety of berry prior to mating season. The berry is desirable at this time of year for these birds due to the fact that it is rich in anthocyanin, a pigment associated with a bright red color. As the birds consume higher levels of anthocyanin, they become redder, and the redder birds are more frequently sought after by mates.

Thinking about the strange lengths to which animals will go to for the sake of love, I can’t help but consider the disparate mating strategies of cuttlefish. For those unfamiliar with these little cephalopods (think distant cousins of squids), they’re a species capable of selectively adjusting their body coloration through use of specialized chromatophores, or color cells. This fact doesn’t tell us much about the mating rituals of cuttlefish, though, until we consider a simple fact: Not all males are big, strong and capable of out-aggressing one another for females.

The smaller males aren’t going to be wiped out of the picture so easily, though. A small, male cuttlefish will change his coloring to resemble a female. After this occurs, a large, unsuspecting male will round up the little guy along with a bunch of other females, and corral them into a cave, wherein the small male will have an opportunity to find a mate literally underneath the large male’s nose. Maybe size doesn’t always matter. It’s important to appreciate the little things in life. I’ll stop now. This is terrible.

Let’s get back to thinking about bees and their odd place in a metaphor about human sexuality. Unlike human females, relatively few female bees reach sexual maturity. Interestingly enough and on an unrelated note, while many humans may be sexually mature, there are moments when intellectual maturity seems relatively scarce.

Bees again! The distinction is made almost at birth, when tending worker bees find a larvae with desirable traits of a queen and feed her a special form of jelly rich in proteins — the bee equivalent of pickles and ice cream. The distinguished diet stimulates a different growth cycle that eventually leads to a sexually mature queen who leaves the hive on any given sunny day, mates with 12 to 15 drones and then returns to the hive to birth offspring for the remaining two to seven years of her life. Unfertilized eggs become male drones, and fertilized eggs become female workers. Though I don’t claim to be an expert in human females, this feels different from behavior I’ve seen in most of my conspecifics.

All of this is a long, rambling way to say that even throughout nature, we see a strange compulsion to find a partnership or mate. Some call this compulsion love, and though it can be silly, strange or nonsensical at times, it’s a struggle shared by many members of the animal kingdom, some plants and occasionally, a frustrated, fifth-year, intellectual romantic.

ALAN LIN falls into two of the three above categories. He can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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