Rod’s Ramblings on the Birds and the Bees

By Rodney Martin in Columns, Rod's Ramblings

The evidence of fecundity abounds this time of year, of course. Robins are pecking at worms for their nestlings, and foals are getting up all wobbly-kneed in their pastures to frolic their days away. Most of us know about the birds and the bees, as it were, and how this all comes to pass. But then again, maybe we don’t.

Did you know that a queen bee only mates once in her life? In the spritely days of her youth, after hatching from her cell and assassinating all the weaker queens that may have been vying for divine authority, she flies from her hive on a lone mission to a location where the male drones from all the hives within several miles somehow (the scientists are baffled) know to gather. There, the queen will mate mid-flight with dozens of drones, each drone dying an ecstatic death immediately upon consummation, and then she returns to her hive to spend the rest of her days, up to five years, laying eggs.

Speaking of ecstatic deaths, there is a species of marsupial mice in Australia that mates in the winter, during which food is scarce. Alas, their mating is so competitive and vigorous (some males have been known to copulate for up to 12 hours in order to prevent other males from getting to their mate) that the entirety of the male population of the species dies of exhaustion during mating season every single year.

That may be a fate preferable to the males of certain species of anglerfish, however. (Anglerfish are those otherworldly deep-sea fish with the glowing antenna that lures other fish into its ridiculous jaws.) In the deep, population density is extremely low because food is scarce, so finding a female anglerfish may be as novel an experience for a male anglerfish as it is for a marine biologist—but it is key to his survival. If he doesn’t find a female he will die, because the good Lord saw fit to build the poor suckers with an ineffective feeding system: they’re small, their jaws are garbage for catching things, and their guts don’t work.

The strategy, then, if you’re a male, is to happen upon a female and bite her for all you’re worth. To seal the deal you release an enzyme that literally fuses your mouth to her body so that your fishy little lips actually share blood vessels with her flesh. It’s fairly intimate. The good news is that you no longer have to feed yourself because your lady’s elite angling skills keep the blood nutritious. The bad news is that you atrophy into little more than a floppy old dangler that she uses whenever she jolly well feels like reproducing.

Perhaps even stranger than the anglerfish is the green spoon worm, which starts life off as neither male nor female, but floats hither and yon about the seafloor looking for an unoccupied space. If it finds a spot, it plants itself there and develops over a few years into a lovely green adult female, about 15cm long. More than likely, though, a young spoon worm will encounter another adult (always a female) before it finds its own spot.  In this case the chemical the female releases (the same one that turns her green) turns the young wormling into a male, who then clings to the female. The female may in turn use its handy dandy feeding proboscis (which can grow up to 150cm long—yes, that is ten times longer than her own body) to stuff the male, who is only a few millimeters in length, into a special sac on her body where he will spend the remainder of his life fertilizing eggs.

Sticking to the world of worms, there is also the flatworm pseudobiceros, a quite stunning creature that, in contrast to the green spoon worm’s genderless youth, exists as both male and female—it is hermaphroditic. The mating ritual of pseudobiceros (i.e. “false two-horn”) is known in the scientific community as ‘fencing’, and it amounts to a fight over who gets to be the man in the relationship. Each one of a mating pair competes to impregnate the other by touching its two whitish ‘horns’ that grow on its underside to the other one’s skin. The winner gets to squiggle off to yet another tryst while the loser, now pregnant, immediately starts looking for food as it now bears the laborious and costly duties of motherhood.

For a more egalitarian approach, you could look to the humble snail or slug, for which many species are also hermaphroditic. They have a unique courting ritual that involves hours of sliming around each other, getting into position to fire a special, bone-like ‘love dart’ (I’m not making this up) into the other one’s body. And we’re not talking about some needly little pinpricks here, folks; relative to the size of the critters involved these are serious, javelin-sized love darts. The darts trigger a hormone response that increases the chances of fertilization once the mating pair finally gets around to conjugating. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, snails and slugs aren’t very adept at wielding their darts, and they often miss altogether, or pierce the other’s internal organs.

You might wonder: for animals that are both male and female, why even bother mating with another individual? Some don’t. But the problem with asexual reproduction is that the offspring are clones of the parent—no genetic diversity, and genetic diversity is an important component of a species survival, so most hermaphroditic species still engage in pair mating.

A person could go on and on. There are the cannibalistic mating practices of many spiders and mantids. There is the prickly matter of porcupine relations. (How do they snuggle? Very carefully, that’s how.) There is the fact of male seahorses being the child bearers, and the way that clown fish are all male except for the biggest one in the school. The biggest one is female, and when she dies the next biggest fish turns from male to female, no big deal, and the rest all move up one spot in the dominance hierarchy real civilized-like.

The animal world is absolutely rife with strange and fascinating reproductive behaviours to learn about, essentially as many different patterns as there are species. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole to go down, but a fairly entertaining way to spend an evening’s leisure time.

Whatever you do, though, don’t read about the mating habits of ducks. Trust me. Just think about happy little yellow ducklings playing in a water bath and everything will be alright.