At some point during your youth, your parents probably took you aside and after several minutes of blushing and throat-clearing gave you the Reader’s Digest version of the birds and bees. (The folks apparently never realized that you had learned about sex in far more detail several years earlier from a friend in your preschool finger painting class.) But just what did we learn about the actual birds and bees, not to mention the thousands of other species of animals that share the Earth with us? They preen, they strut, they lure and, if all goes as planned, they have sex. You might be surprised by some of the following sexual facts and oddities concerning members of the wild kingdom.
Unless that kid in your preschool class already covered this material.
Warning: Some of these tidbits are not for the faint of heart. If you haven’t had the “talk” yet, you might want to be accompanied by an adult before you proceed.
Perhaps the most astounding part of sex in the animal world is the sheer size of some of the sex parts themselves. Were you aware that one testicle of the average Blue whale can weigh up to 100 pounds? You can imagine the problems this causes. This startling fact might explain why you almost never see a Blue whale wearing shorts in public.
Whales also hold the record for having the largest penises. A fact which they never fail to mention at parties, by the way. In large Rorqual whales the penis can be up to 10 feet long, with a diameter of up to one foot. Female Rorqual whales are notoriously cheery. Now you know why.
But bigger isn’t always better, necessarily. It is also interesting to note that insects hold their own record as well. If the largest animals have the largest sexual organs, it would follow that the smallest animals, insects, possess the most diminutive. While too small to be measured precisely, it is estimated that the smallest penis on the Earth is a fraction of a thousandth of an inch in size. Ladies, this will be welcome news to that insecure husband or boyfriend.
And now the answer to that other question on your mind. Which animal is the proud owner of the longest sperm? Oddly, in this case, sperm size is not related to the size of the animal. In fact, the longest sperm amongst the mammals is produced by the Chinese hamster (around 30 microns in length.) You might need to know that at some point in your life, though I can’t imagine at what point that might be. Perhaps this scenario will present itself:
Mugger: All right. Give me your purse.
Mugger: Oh, by the way, I’m going to shoot you.
You: This light isn’t very flattering.
Mugger: No, I mean with this gun.
Mugger: But you might be able to save yourself.
You: And can I keep the purse? It’s the only one I have to go with these shoes.
Mugger: Just answer this question. Which mammal has the longest sperm?
You: The Chinese hamster?
Mugger: How should I know? I’m a mugger. And while we’re on the subject, how long is a micron, anyway?
The animal world is full of amazing quirks of nature. When it comes to the sexual anatomy and behavior of animals, new discoveries are being made all the time. (Except at 4:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.)
For instance, most species of creatures have two sexes (male and female, for those of you who haven’t had the “talk” yet.) But scientists found that a crustacean, Tanais, has three sexes. The single-celled Parameciam amelia has eight different sexes, and you can be sure that this dramatically increases its chances of finding a date on short notice.
Another of the astonishing twists in the animal world is the sex change of the wrasse, or Cleaner fish. A male wrasse will dominate a group of females, and if for some reason he should abandon them, the most dominant of the remaining females will begin to change sex within a few hours. This gender flexibility has many advantages, not the least of which is the fact that their propensity for changing genders makes the wrasse a highly prized guest on the daytime talk show circuit.
We usually think of living creatures as having the same number of sexual organs as we do. (Please avoid asking men in trench coats at bus stops for details on this subject.) But animals have taken some liberties in this area. There have been many documented cases of snakes being born with up to four viable penises. Females of animal species such as the duckbill and the spiny anteater have a pair of vaginas. A female hog can have as many as 18 mammaries.
But the most unusual animal in this category would have to be the ordinary tapeworm. In each segment of a tapeworm, there are bunches of testes and bunches of ovaries. This means that one adult tapeworm can end up with hundreds of gonads. This makes it extremely difficult for the tapeworm when someone walks in while it’s disrobing–it doesn’t know which part of itself to cover up first.
Let us move on to the sexual act itself.
Perhaps the most universal instinct living creatures possess is the one which drives them to reproduce, to perpetuate their genes. (A close second would be the instinct to eat far too much at an all-you-can-eat buffet.) But the fact that every animal must have sex to survive does not mean all animals perform that act in the same way. Each animal group has its own mating style, its own rituals–its own equivalent to the awkwardness of not knowing which way to turn your head during a first kiss.
An obvious difference in the sexual styles of animals is the great variation in the duration of their sexual encounters. Certain creatures only live a short period of time (like the mayfly, which has a lifespan of only about one hour), so it is understandable that such animals would be in a pretty big hurry to ensure its genes will be passed along before its time is up. Most beavers spend about three minutes copulating. It takes about two minutes for ducks to finish the deed, and it runs about the same for kangaroo rats. (You might also be interested to know that kangaroo rats never drink water. I know, back to the sex.) To continue the copulation countdown, whales and elephants take about 30 seconds to copulate. Maybe I was wrong about the female Rorqual whales–how cheery could they be, after all? It takes male chimpanzees 10-20 seconds to reach climax. For mice in the wild, the sexual encounter is over after a mere five seconds. Sex for mosquitoes lasts from 2-3 seconds. Those husbands and boyfriends are feeling pretty good about themselves by now, aren’t they?
On the other end of the spectrum, certain insects have been known to have coitus for up to an unbelievable 60 hours. It appears a standing ovation may be in order. Unfortunately, that admirable length of time is not completely voluntary on the part of the participants. It seems this duration is due, in part, to the fact that insect penises (as well as the organs of some reptiles) lock within the female, making withdrawal difficult. Sometimes withdrawal isn’t possible at all, and the penis breaks off. This gives an entirely new meaning to the term “one night stand.”
The penises of animals vary a great deal, and are often equipped with spines, corrugations, knobs or hooks. Interested parties may view examples of such shapes and textures by simply attending your average bachelorette party.
It is surprising just how much sexual activity in the wild is made up of rituals which humans would generally consider painful or cruel. There are many examples of animals which vigorously bite into each other during intercourse (the females take the brunt of this practice), or which link up in other not-so-pleasant ways. The mating of dragonflies is fraught with complexity and discomfort. The male first grasps the thorax of the female with his legs, he then flexes his abdomen forward and affixes two claspers to the female. In some species a sticky secretion bonds the pair together as well. Then they fly off together, mating in mid-air. Clasping before marriage is frowned upon in the wild, incidentally. Mother dragonflies are often heard to say: “You should be ashamed of yourself, clasping with every Coenagriidae you meet. In my day, we never let a man grasp our thorax, at least not until he was introduced to our parents.”
One of the oddest practices in the mating world belongs to a breed of fly. Its technical name is Serromyia femorata. The flies take up a position during sex which resembles kissing, but at the end of mating, the female sucks out the body content of the male through the mouth. So, what we’ve heard is apparently true. When it comes to a mate, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Ants, too, have a strange mating ritual. It seems both the queen ant (female) and the prince (male) have wings, and when the mating urge hits–generally after consuming a number of imported beers–they fly 100 feet into the air, have a brief copulation, then the male’s wings fall off and he dies. The female goes on to lay eggs resulting from that brief encounter for a period which can last up to 15 years. (“Doctor hurry, it’s almost time, the contractions are coming six years apart now.”) Female ants must surely be hoarse from all the screaming.
Just about everyone has heard that the female praying mantis eats the head of its mate after sex. But were you aware that often the female mantis will consume its mate’s head during sex? Shockingly, this doesn’t deter the male from finishing what he’s begun. That’s right. If the male mantis has mounted the female before she begins to devour his head, he will successfully complete copulation without it. Most women have always suspected this would be the case with their human counterparts as well.
The sexual practices of animals are almost as varied as our own. Porpoises often participate in group sex. Roman snails have been observed performing foreplay. Many fish seem to enjoy kissing as part of the mating ritual. It is believed that deer masturbate during the rutting season by stimulating their antlers. There seems to be no end to the variation. And all without the aid of manuals or how-to videos. Just instinct.
All of this serves to remind us that although we fret and complain about our sex lives, we should keep in mind that in many ways we’ve got it easy. It should also keep us a bit more humble. For while we take a lot of pride in our sexual sophistication, it is useful to keep in mind that there are creatures around who have been doing it faster, longer, more often and even, on occasion, without their heads.