Try as they might to resist temptation… when spring approaches, scientists have just one thing on their minds, reckons Russ Swan.
Let’s talk about sex. Legend has it that we're all thinking about it most of the time anyway, so why not? The thing is, I’ve seen a peculiar rash – wait, let me rephrase that – I’ve seen an unusual flurry of research reports recently, about some unexpected aspects of sex in the animal kingdom.
Generally, when a specialist topic suddenly produces lots of new findings, it’s because of a major conference. All the researchers in a field rush to get their papers in, and the science all comes at once. As it were. Strangely, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. I’m not aware of any specific events or publications focusing on these issues.
I can’t help remembering a line delivered by Harvard mathematics professor and general wit and raconteur Tom Lehrer, about the fictional Dr Samuel Gall, ‘inventor’ of the gall bladder, who had initially specialised in animal husbandry – until they caught him at it. (Incidentally, Lehrer has recently put all his songs in the public domain and I heartily recommend checking them out.)
This recent outbreak of animal sex life research spans insects and reptiles and has a common theme of genitalia. Among the newly published papers is one from a team at Adelaide, which has “provided the first anatomical description of the snake clitoris”. Stop sniggering at the back there, this is serious science. Apparently, the study of female herpetological genitalia has long been overlooked. Having finally found the organ, which some claimed didn’t even exist, the researchers discovered it may swell and become stimulated during mating. This in turn suggests that lady snakes might be seduced rather than, as previously assumed, coerced. That seems quite nice.
Not so much fun for some male wasps, however. A new report from Kobe University in Japan informs us that male mason wasps have an unusual antipredator defence. Wasp stings evolved from ovipositors, and because males don’t have these organs, they were thought to be essentially defenceless against tree frogs, their main predator. Not so fast, Sherlock. What they lack in ovipositors they make up for in spikey genitals. When attacked by a frog, they deliver a painful rebuke using their unusually sharp private parts. Kind of gives a new meaning to the word prick.
Females are endowed with stickyout parts while the males are penetrated in order to share their gametes. It seems a very on-point bit of research in these days of human gender fluidity
As if that wasn’t enough, Hokkaido researchers have reported new findings about the reversed polarity of genitalia in a small louse called Neotrogla.
In this species of cave-dwelling guano eater, the females are endowed with stickyout parts while the males are penetrated in order to share their gametes.
It seems a very on-point bit of research in these days of human gender fluidity, and I can imagine it causing apoplexy among a certain cohort of the anti-woke, antiscience gammons. We can hope, at least.
The question remains: what has sparked this fountain of findings on fornication?
This may be a scurrilous suggestion, but I can’t help thinking that the closing date for nominations for the 2023 Ig Nobel Prize must be around about now, given the time needed for judging and verification before the September awards ceremony. Now a highlight of the scientific calendar, these awards carry a different sort of prestige to the ‘proper’ Nobels but are increasingly recognised by serious scientists as an alternative badge of research honour. I’ll put my money on the snake.