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The raw passions of the wild bed – how do animals do it?

ByKarolina Zieba

Feb 20, 2018

I think it is safe to assume that you know how human sex works – although considering the effectiveness of most current sexual education programs I wouldn’t be surprised to discover otherwise. As a human, this is the sort of sex you should know about. As an individual curious about the natural world and all its processes, of course you want to know more. Well, curious individual, here is a short list of the various ways in which animals have sex.

Hummingbirds are swift in their flight. They are like little buzzing darts aiming for a bullseye. Before getting down and dirty, however, they go through lengthy courtship rituals. Usually, hummingbirds create large territories, but during mating seasons males gather around an open space in an attempt to woo females. Like at a speed-dating event, females approach the males one-by-one. The male starts chirping, and if enticed by the female to continue, he flies all around her, flaunting his tail and feathers. While hummingbirds take their time with foreplay, they are quick at the deed itself. Once the female chooses a mate, she allows him to climb onto her back and insert his cloaca – the copulatory organ and waste orifice – into hers to transfer sperm. A few seconds later, the animals part ways and will most likely not see each other again until another mating event.

Octopuses are also quite solitary. Once they reach sexual maturity, they metabolize their muscles to make eggs and sperm. Scientists don’t know exactly how they find each other for reproductive purposes – perhaps it has to do with chemical signals. Unlike hummingbirds, the courtships rituals are minimal -females don’t have very high standards. Some male octopuses show their underside to identify their sex to the females, and when encountering a large female, they make themselves look larger to smother the females’ cannibalistic urges. For that same reason, males tend to stay a long distance away or behind the female for the duration of the passionate act so that they have more time to escape if the female turns violent. In most species, males have one arm – called the hectocotylus – longer than the others that is used to transfer sperm. They insert the hectocotylus into the female’s mantle cavity and transfer sperm packets. In some species – where the males are especially smaller than the females – the males’ hectocotylus detaches right after insertion. Females store the sperm packets until they are ready to lay eggs. Although this seems to be the norm, researchers have recently discovered communities of octopuses where mating takes place “sucker to sucker” because the females don’t engage in cannibalism.

Seahorse males give birth. This is a well-known fact, but it’s not only seahorses that stand out from the rest of the animal kingdom in this manner. The whole taxonomic family of Syngnathidae – including pipefish and sea dragons – exhibit male pregnancies. Males are pickier among Syngnathids, although it is unclear why they choose the mates they do. Before males receive eggs from the female’s ovipositor, – the organ used for laying eggs – the pair engage in an extensive courtship dance: the couple perform the same movements and swim around in circles. Once the eggs are deposited into the male’s pouch, the male releases sperm, which then also makes its way to the eggs.  Most Syngnathids, including seahorses, have pouches where they store the eggs, but in some species, the eggs merely adhere to the animal’s body. The pair tends to stay together for the entirety of the breeding season. This is most likely because the female checks on the progress of the pregnancy for its duration. After two weeks, the male gives birth and waits to be impregnated again.

“Not every sexual act has a reproductive function,” says Janet Mann, a biologist who studies dolphins at Georgetown University via Live Science.

Mann came to this conclusion after observing – on numerous accounts – homosexuality in her subjects. Homosexuality in animals is not uncommon. In 1999, after a decade of research, Bruce Bagemihl observed 1,500 species in homosexual pairings.

Bonobo primates are probably the most sexually liberated animals on earth. Sex is how they keep their group together and how they respond to competition. Males mount females. Females mount males. Males rub their scrotal areas together. Females rub against each other. All this just for fun or out of excitement.

It is common among both black swans and flamingos for two males to raise young together. In about a quarter of black swan parental scenarios, the male mates with a female just to have a chick and proceeds to chase the female away to hatch it with its male partner. Two male flamingos – Carlos and Fernando – at the WWT Slimbridge wildlife reserve exhibited male courtship behaviours with each other and eventually adopted an abandoned chick together.

From famous animal couples in zoos to observed behaviours in the wild, there is no doubt that homosexuality is common among animals. Although research assigned a lot of weight to the animal’s biological sex, perhaps what we can learn from observing animals is that although sex is essential to reproduction, it is not important in relationships and it should not be identified with gender, which most likely does not exist outside humanity anyways.

Image credit: Dan Caspersz via flickr

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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