“Lets Get Weird!”
The natural world is full of more beauty, complexity, irony and sex than any one mind can fathom. Today, I will attempt to provide you with a glimpse into what I believe to be the top ten most bizarre sexual encounters in the animal kingdom. However, before I express my rather crass interpretation of nature’s weirdest sex, I’ll share with you a fun fact to set the mood:
Natures Biggest Wiener (*Spoiler, not Ron Jeremy):
Moby Dick, indeed. As some of you may have guessed, the largest penis in nature belongs to the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus). But just how big is this thing? Prepare to blush: an adult male blue whale has a member twice the height of an average human (8-10 feet on average), and each one weighing between 100-150 pounds! Thankfully for the females, this species of marine mammal is also known for having the largest vagina. Every time a male whale ejaculates, they release several gallons of sperm; which is likely necessary considering the notoriously promiscuous nature of female whales, or ‘cows’. The evolutionary logic behind these males’ massive loads is something along the lines of “the more spunk I release, the better the odds this tramp has my baby!”
… But we’re not done with the Cetaceans quite yet:
Meet the Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the proud owner of the largest testicles in the animal kingdom. Their testicles alone can weigh over two tons! To put that into perspective, its gonads may weigh more than the Honda in your driveway. But enough about Moby Dick’s massive manhood, let’s move on..
The Top Ten Weirdest Sexual Stories in the Animal Kingdom:
1) Octopus: “Jizz Laser Beams”
Mew Mew Mew Mew!! That’s right, some species of male cephalopods (a class of marine mollusks including octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and the nautilus) have a specialized sexual arm called a hectocotylus capable of ‘shooting’ sperm several feet – talk about a ‘money shot’! The hectocotylus is the third arm on the male octopus’s right side; characterized by its shorter, stubbier appearance in comparison to the other arms. Generally, sex among cephalopods involves a male inserting long packets of his sperm into the female’s mantle using his hectocotylus (see image below).
This seems simple enough, however, many species of octopuses and squid have females with cannibalistic tendencies – and we thought we had it tough. Since mating can be dangerous (and potentially deadly) for certain species of cephalopod, males have adapted interesting ways of impregnating females without getting too close to become her next meal. In some species of cephalopod with infamously cannibalistic females, the males can extend their hectocotyli and propel their spermatophore strings from a few meters away! This tactic is rarely as successful as the tactic used by the braver males who will risk getting close enough to insert their hectocotylus into the female’s mantle; however, if a male octopus’s aim is on target, his spermatophores may be stored in the female’s skin and potentially used to fertilize her eggs at a later date. For male cephalopods, sex can be quite risky business!
2) Spotted Hyenas: Chicks With Dicks.
Move over, fellas! Coming in at number two in my countdown is the female spotted hyena, who happens to be equipped with a massive member that she uses to assert dominance over the subordinate males in their clan. The female’s ‘pseudo-penis’ is actually an elongated clitoris which functions very similarly to the male’s member; they urinate through it, use it to have sex, and can even get an erection! However, quite unlike spotted hyena males, hyena females also give birth through their unsettlingly ambiguous genitalia. In what is sure to be one of nature’s most emasculating events, female spotted hyenas have also been observed using their female-boners to assert dominance over males. But why on earth would evolution by means of natural selection result in a species whose female anatomy is so unlike the anatomy of most other mammals?
To understand the answer, we need to look at the social structure of the spotted hyena. Hyena society is composed of several matrilines, meaning that its social organization and hierarchies are determined by the ladies! Additionally, the hyena clans operate in a nepotistic society, meaning the babies of the high ranking females will outrank the babies of lower ranking females by default. In other words, in hyena society, it pays to be ‘highborn'; sort of like in Britain, I suppose. In a species where females run the show and the males cower in anatomical envy; its not difficult to imagine the evolutionary benefit to a female hyena’s pseudo-penis.
3) Garter Snakes: Bisexual, Reptilian Orgies?
As soon as it becomes warm enough for garter snakes to emerge from brumation (the reptilian equivalent of hibernation), they will begin a bisexual marathon and form an enormous mating ball. These mating balls are quite a sausage fest, in which ratios of 1 female per 25 males aren’t uncommon. In some cases, up to 100 males follow a single female whose pheromones indicate she is receptive and ready to breed. Since there is enormous competition over the few females, garter snakes engage in trickery to try to waste the sperm of their male opponents. In order to fool others, some males release a similar pheromone to that of the female; which makes other males pursue and mate with them rather than the female. This gives the male a better chance of being the individual who actually impregnates the female; assuming he’s following/copulating with a female and not another male engaging in the same bi-sexual trickery. These orgies can last several hours, a single copulation event can take as long as a 10-15 minutes and mating balls may contain over 100 snakes!
4) Sugar Gliders: Marsupials with a ‘Spare’ Penis.
Rolling in at number four is (hopefully) the weirdest penis you’ve ever seen. Meet the male sugar glider and his male members, notice the plural. Male sugar gliders have a bifurcated penis with two shafts that act as separate penises; naturally, the females have multiple vaginas as well. This feature is not unique to sugar gliders and is actually one of the defining characteristics separating marsupials from placental mammals. Marsupial females have two laterally located vaginas which connect to separate uteri and are the destination of the males bifurcated penis during marsupial copulation. Additionally, female marsupials give birth through a third vaginal canal called the median vagina, which is located beneath the lateral vaginas. So, the next time you are taking a nocturnal stroll through Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or Eastern Australia, remember to keep an eye out for the charming marsupial gliders with bizarre, duplicated sex organs.
5) Earwigs: Redefining ‘Breaking Up’.
Number five pains me to even think about. Some species of earwig and other insects are known to break off their penises inside the females in order to prevent her from copulating with another male! This bold sacrifice would surely not be pleasant for the male; however, he has likely ensured the continuity of his genetic line, so I suppose he still would have something to celebrate! If, after copulating, the female (and whats left of the males penis) should carry on with their insect business only to be eaten by a shrew before laying her eggs; the male may still have a chance to mate again, using his other penis. That’s right, some species of earwig also have two penises. Interestingly, studies have revealed that male earwigs tend to be ‘right-penised’, or more likely to use their right penis than the one on the left during sexual encounters. This preference for using the right penis has actually caused speciation among earwigs; some species have lost the left penis altogether, and are left with only one penis like the rest of us. If a female takes off with his primary penis, the male had better get comfortable using the backup leftie penis for future sexual encounters (IF he’s lucky enough to have one). I suppose the evolutionary insight here is “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
6) Penguins: The Prostitutes of the Arctic!
If you thought we were the only animals who engaged in sexual favors for materials, you’d be wrong. Penguin females are known to be quite promiscuous with their sexuality, and are often ready to trade sexual favors for their favorite form of currency – nest stones! Nest stones are the appropriately sized, rounded rocks that penguins gather to construct a barrier around their precious eggs. This helps insulate the mother’s eggs from the frigid conditions surrounding them. When males are out gathering food, females will exchange sexual favors with other males that bring them nest stones of just the right size and shape. Make no mistake – these females are very picky! Unless a male brings her some stunning quality nest stones, she will likely deny his avian booty call. However, these ‘perfect’ stones are in short supply and some females and bachelor males engage in the risky act of stealing nest stones from other females. Successful females use their jacked stones to insulate their own nests, while the males use it as currency to purchase sexual access to whichever female he’s had his eyes on. Scientists have observed female penguins earning up to 60 nest stones this way in a single day!
Penguin promiscuity kind of reminds me of that Donna Summers song – “She works hard for her money, so hard for it, honey.”
7) Barnacles: Size Matters.
Remember when I told you the blue whale had the largest penis in the animal kingdom? Well, I should have been more specific. While indeed Blue Whales do have the most massive junk in Kingdom Animalia, the barnacle has the longest reproductive organ in comparison to their body size of any known, living animal. Comparatively speaking, they have a longer penis than that of any whale. It’s 12cm, which is 40X the width of the animals shell. This is roughly equivalent to a human male having a 75 foot long member! Barnacles are hermaphroditic crustaceans with the ability to function as either sex. For barnacles, reproduction is complicated because they are sessile (incapable of moving, attached to sea floor). The fact that they are incapable of moving their shells meant that they needed to evolve elongated sexual organs capable of dispersing their genetic material quite some distance away from the shell. Neighboring barnacles can fertilize each other, and generally prefer to play the role of the male. Evolutionarily speaking, the barnacle playing the role of the female does all the physical work to form the offspring while the male gets to sit back and enjoy the same reproductive benefit as the pregnant barnacle. For this reason, its easy to understand how competition arises among these creatures regarding who gets to play the laid back, less committed role of the male.
8) Elephants: Sex, a Group Celebration.
In case you weren’t aware, elephants are freaking awesome! They’re extremely smart, cooperative and social mammals capable of demonstrating feats of cognition similar to that of some great apes. These animals, similar to hyenas, live in complex social groups dominated by females. I could get carried away very easily when discussing these fascinating creatures, but for the sake of time, I’ll try to stick to the topic at hand – sex. Mating among elephants is often celebrated by the whole herd, as is indicated by flagrant trumpeting as a male mounts a female. Groups have been observed forming around a copulating pair only to trumpet and carry on at extreme volumes when they fail to contain their excitement at what they are witnessing. I find this a bit odd, but at the same time somewhat endearing. I wonder if these creatures are prematurely celebrating the new addition to the herd – if they are capable of such advanced thoughts. Perhaps they are just celebrating because they can relate to the euphoric feeling of sex themselves.
At over 6 feet long, the African Elephant is the undisputed holder of the title of the largest penis of any land dwelling animal. The male elephants penis is an absolutely huge, flexible and dexterous appendage that must locate the female’s vagina without the help of sight or the guidance of the forelimbs. Large, bulky animals like horses, elephants, giraffes, hippos and rhinos that do not have the ability to see their partners’ genitals during intercourse rely on the touch of their penis to locate the female’s vagina. Amazingly, this animal has never even seen its own penis, despite the fact that many of his friends probably have when they watch his intimate encounters.
9) Whiptails: Lesbian Lizards!
I wonder if the reason I love whiptails so much is because of how many lesbian friends I have? Spoiler alert to my lesbian friends – your wedding gift from me WILL be a pair of whiptail lizards with a large, customized tank. These fascinating lizards aren’t truly ‘lesbian’, however, because in many cases there just aren’t any male members of the species to be found! All members of some species of whiptail lizard are female and rely on the biological process of parthenogenesis in order to reproduce. Parthenogenesis is an asexual reproductive process whereby a female’s embryo(s) develop and grow without fertilization.
What makes whiptails so interesting to me is that even though they don’t engage in male/female sex, they generally engage in female/female sex to initiate the development of their eggs. One female will assert the dominant position over the other; typically mounting her and biting the back of her neck. Amazingly, the sexual position the female whiptail assumes has implications on the eggs she will lay. The female on the top will lay smaller eggs while the female on the bottom will lay larger eggs; and the roles seemed to be alternated every mating season!
Some animal species rely exclusively on parthenogenesis for reproduction, and others only have parthenogenetic events as the result of an extremely rare mutation. Although its almost astronomically unlikely, parthenogenesis could occur in a human or other species of primate. In other words, rare though it may be, ‘immaculate conception’ need not be driven by anything other than the laws of nature – and certainly wouldn’t reveal anything about the offspring’s relation to the ‘creator’ of the cosmos, but that’s a story for another time.
10) Bonobos: Why Fight When You Can F***?
Those of you who know me best probably could have guessed that I can’t get through a post without mentioning the animal order closest to my heart – the Primates. Bonobos are African apes often referred to as the ‘make love, not war ape’. Although there are some acts of violence committed in bonobo society; they tend to make both of their closest cousins (chimpanzees and humans) look like barbaric, violence driven creatures by comparison. When bonobos face a perplexing situation, they tend to relieve the tension by engaging in sex – sometimes up to fifteen times per day! In contrast, their close cousins the chimpanzees will break out into violent, aggressive fits when presented with a similar, perplexing problem. Sex permeates every aspect of bonobo society, and is not restricted by age, gender or even familial relation.Bonobos engage in bisexual sex quite regularly to help maintain strong bonds within their troops and promote social cohesion. In stark contrast to chimpanzees, bonobo females run the show. Hierarchies do still exist in bonobo culture, however the social status of each individual seems to be significantly less deterministic than the social hierarchies seen in chimps. Bonobos are extremely smart and capable of communicating with humans through the use of sign language and unique lexigrams (pictures associated with particular objects, actions, events, etc). These close cousins of ours are (unfortunately) not often seen in American Zoo’s because of their extremely human-like sexual tendencies. Their constant desire to engage in bisexual sex doesn’t make them the most appropriate choice for observation animals at Zoological parks visited by young children – but it does make them VERY interesting to primatologists!
…Because let’s not even pretend that these two, were they to engage in sexual intercourse, wouldn’t be fit for a mention in an article about the most bizarre sex in the animal kingdom…
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