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