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Birds do it, bees do it ...

Birds do it, bees do it ...

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Published by: ivan_tan_26 on Feb 12, 2011
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02/12/2011

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2/12/11 12:53 PMTODAYonline | PrintPage 1 of 3http://www.todayonline.com/Print/Science/EDC110212-0000190/Birds-do-it,-bees-do-it-,,,
Birds do it, bees do it ...
With Valentine's Day around the corner, just be glad you're not a malespider
05:55 AM Feb 12, 2011
LONDON - Erica McAllister is excited. "Flies," she enthuses, "are the best, because they'reeverywhere, and they do everything. They get up to the craziest stuff. Amazing genitalia.And some wild strategies."Downstairs in Britain's Natural History Museum's magnificently arched Jerwood Gallery,staff are (ahem) mounting Sexual Nature, a new exhibition exploring the diverse and oftenstartling sexual and reproductive behaviour of animals (or, as the museum's posters coylyput it, "nature's most intimate secrets").It's the museum's first adult exhibition, aimed at those over 16, and containing what thesame publicity calls "frank information and imagery about sex", so everyone is, naturally,quite excited."I'm looking forward to seeing visitors' reactions," says Richard Sabin, senior curator of the museum's mammal group, from whose collections a number of specimens - includinga red deer stag, a hyena, chimpanzees and Guy the gorilla - have been selected fordisplay. "They'll have seen animal courtship on television, but nothing quite as, um,graphic as here."What we hope is that it wipes away the whole thing about this being a taboo subject.Because, of course, nothing could be more natural."Natural it may be but animal reproduction can be a mighty strange business.Barnacles, for instance, have a penis 30 times their body length. Male snakes have aforked organ, allowing them to dodge the female's tail and penetrate from either direction.Hedgehogs plug their partner's vagina with excess sperm to stop anyone else's getting alook in. The female hyena picks and dumps her male as she sees fit, and has evenevolved genitalia that look like a male's.Still, flies are best, says McAllister (she would - she's the museum's entomologycollections manager). The male stalk-eyed fly, she explains, "takes in air and its eyescome out on stalks. Then it blows out again, and the stalks harden and set, for ever. Andit's the ones with the widest stalks that get the most action. Male antler flies do the same,except they use their antlers to head-butt each other - to see off rivals".There's not much to beat the mating ritual of the dance fly, though. "They're into gift-giving," says McAllister. "The males catch a smaller fly and kind of dangle it in front of thefemales as they dance. But they wrap the present up in a little silk balloon, so it takes hera while to get at it - and while she's busy, he has his wicked way. Brilliant."And some of the males are even more devious. Once they've done the deed, if the giftisn't finished they'll just take it back and give it to another girl. Like a half-eaten box of Milk Tray, except it seems to work. And some really naughty ones haven't got a gift at all,they just pretend. It's crazy stuff."DARWIN'S TAKE ON SEXThe whole process, obviously, has a point. It's all about making sure it's your DNA thatget transmitted rather than anyone else's. It's this Darwinian process of sexual selection
 
2/12/11 12:53 PMTODAYonline | PrintPage 2 of 3http://www.todayonline.com/Print/Science/EDC110212-0000190/Birds-do-it,-bees-do-it-,,,
that's at the core of Sexual Nature."The point," says Tate Greenhalgh, the exhibition developer, "is that survival isn't alwaysthe key to evolution; it's reproduction that really counts."Take the peacock: The male's magnificent 2-m-long tail feathers are a major obstacle tomobility and can be fatal when a predator pounces. But what's important is that thosesame feathers appeal to the hens. So males have to prove not just good looks but goodhealth.The cock's brilliant red comb, for instance, "takes an awful lot of testosterone to produce,which inhibits its defence against disease - so a particularly fine specimen isn't merelyaesthetically pleasing, it shows the bird is rampant and very healthy".Similarly, the gift-giving process isn't just about gentlemanly generosity; it could, in somespecies, demonstrate a particular male's prowess at capturing prey and hence his capacityto feed the couple's young.When it comes to male mammals, says Sabin, the name of the game is generally to seeoff potential rivals and have your pick of the available females. The monumental antlerssported by the adult male moose - they can grow to a spread of up to 1.4m in a singleseason - represent "a phenomenal amount of energy and resources, all devoted toproviding a convincing visual signal to males of your physical dominance and to females of your gene quality".If a male is sufficiently dominant, his reproductive kit need not be spectacular: Guy thegorilla, the adult male silverback whose 185cm chest and monumental neck muscles madehim a favourite at London Zoo until he died 30-odd years ago, probably had a penismeasuring no longer than 3cm erect. As the alpha male, he had his harem and simplydidn't need to compete.But even 3cm is gargantuan compared to what others have (or don't have). Adult malespiders, explains Jan Beccaloni, an entomologist specialising in arachnids, do not have apenis at all. Instead, they produce a sperm web, deposit their sperm on to the web, andthen draw it up into the palps (a pair of small, claw-like structures at the front of theirbodies).They then slot their palps into the female "like a lock and key", Beccaloni says.Compared with your average male spider, humans have it easy, she reckons. "Essentially,the male has to make sure the female is in the mood to mate," she says. "He also has toshow her he's of the same species. And he has to demonstrate he's not food. If he getsany of those three things wrong, he may well get eaten, because in most cases thefemale is bigger than the male."Some spiders are into gift-giving and, generally speaking, the bigger the gift, the longerthe copulation lasts. Male jumping spiders semaphore with their palps and body parts,prompting a gender-specific female dance that sends the male into "a frenzy of sexualanticipation".For many male spiders the risk, of course, is that copulation necessitates placing his juicyabdomen in front of his partner's jaws. But in evolutionary terms that "makes goodsense", says Beccaloni, "because males have a far shorter lifespan than females anyway,and if they get eaten, that means he's been in the right position for longer and thefemale's well-fed. In short, his genes will get passed on. He's not been wasted."WHY ARE WE WATCHING THIS AGAIN?Sexual Nature grew out of the phenomenal success of the museum's Darwin exhibitionlast year, Greenhalgh says. "We're always popular with schoolchildren, with young parentsand older adults," she says, "but we wanted to broaden our audience to include moreyoung adults. We're hoping the playful tone and the frank language of this will appeal -and the exhibits too, of course.

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