Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Five Shades of Grey

Valentine's Day may be this Saturday, but I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of couples and singles alike celebrating a day early with the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. And for you kids reading who are wondering about this movie that all the adults keep talking about, let me explain: it's a movie about grown ups coloring pictures of people kissing using just grey crayons. Really boring stuff with lots of cooties that you have no interest in asking about any further. Now go make mommy or daddy a cocktail while they read Auntie Nature Geek's blog.

Today I thought I'd pay my own tribute to this monochromatic movie by highlighting the love lives of five grey animals. Let the science voyeurism [dramatic sexy pause] begin.

Dolphins are one of only a select few animals that are known to mate for recreational purposes, that is to say mate when a female is not in heat. Males and females will mate all year, but what's more is males will mate with each other as well. Now that's a bromance. Both male and female dolphins will stimulate themselves on each other, other animals (poor sea turtle), and inanimate objects. Some divers report being "raped" by dolphins, but really it's akin to nothing more than a dog trying to hump your leg. It's just this dog is really, really big, grey, and rubbery. 
How you doin'?

Why do they do it? Some may be quick to say "well it feels good," but it's not as simple as that. Many dolphin researchers refer to mating as a "socio-sexual behavior," which means that they use it to form and strengthen bonds. Bonobos, a primate that is a close human relative, also engage in socio-sexual behavior. For these animals, sex is often described as serving the same purpose as a handshake in humans. 

Don't think I'll be trying that move at my next business meeting.

I know many of you, like Mr. Nature Geek, cringe just at the mention of silverfish. These small, wingless insects are capable of massive household destruction of books, starchy food, clothes, and carpeting. They are exceptionally good at living with humans and making more of themselves. When a future Mr. and Mrs. Silverfish meet, they partake in a three part courtship ritual that can last for up to 30 minutes. In the first part, the couple face each other and touch their vibrating antennae, their version of small talk. In the second act of our lovers' tango, the male plays hard to get and runs away, and the female does the chasing. Once she catches Mr. Right, they stand side by side, and the male vibrates his tail. The male releases a packet of sperm onto the ground--this may sound a bit premature to humans, but internal fertilization is a bit too kinky for the silverfish. Instead the packet is absorbed by the female's ovipositor, a tube located at the end of her abdomen.

By the way, one unrelated neat fact about the silverfish that I can't leave unmentioned is the frequency of its molts. Usually insects shed their skin only as they grow before reaching maturity. However in silverfish, they continue to shed their skin as adults, molting up to 30 times in one year. Couple that with a lifespan of 2 to 8 years and that's a lot of wardrobe changes!

Marine Iguana
When the breeding season rolls around, male marine iguanas establish territories in which to strut their stuff called leks. Until recently lekking was not thought to occur in reptiles, only in other types of animals such as insects, birds, and mammals. Female marine iguanas travel from lek to lek, carefully inspecting each male. These ladies may be some of the choosiest of all lizards, evaluating their studs based on size, activity level, ornamentation (those awesome crests you see in the photo), body condition, and even how many ticks and mites he has. I mean really ladies, is there no bigger turnoff than ectoparasites on your man? Surprisingly, what is not used as a way to judge males is their coloration, which gets pretty spectacular in the breeding season.
In research conducted by Dr. Martin Wikelski, male marine iguanas were painted all sorts of hues to see if females had a color preference in their mates. The ladies cared not in the slightest. Dr. Wikelski's team hypothesizes that the coloration that appears in male iguanas is due to pigments building up in their skin from their diet of algae. When not breeding, a male iguana sheds his skin and this pigment on a regular basis. But when it's time to impress females, every bit of energy that can be spared goes into courtship, and they stop shedding their skin. So a male marine iguana's coloration is not an indicator of superior health or diet, but rather of his devotion to his sexy craft.

Grey Wolf
Like many males, the males of the grey wolf worry about competition from rivals. He may be the top dog and have won the female's attention, but as soon as he leaves, what's to stop another male from coming in and mating with her? Then it could be the rival's pups that the female raises, denying him the chance to pass along his genes. In grey wolves and other members of the dog family, nature has come up with a clever solution to eliminate the competition. When a male mates with a female, his penis swells swells and her vagina contracts, which causes the two to be literally stuck together for up to 30 minutes. This is just long enough for the male's sperm to fertilize the female, without the interruption of competitors. Five minutes into this "dog knot," the male twists himself around (ow) and the couple stay end-to-end for the duration of their time together, hoping they don't need to run anywhere fast. Or in opposite directions.

Peanut, the White-Faced Cockatiel
It would be remiss of me to do a whole blog on the love life of grey animals and not mention the strange habits of my very own grey bird. In addition to dolphins, it is known for many species of animals to masturbate, both in the wild and in captivity. When my beloved Peanut became sexually mature, he chose for his first "girlfriend"...a tennis ball. Now, I want to stop for a moment to let that imagery sink in. Yup, Mr. Nature Geek and I spent a lot of time laughing our butts off as we watched this little parrot try to climb on top of a rolling tennis ball. The best part was when the tennis ball would roll backwards and hit him and Peanut would give it a very angry PECK.
Baby Peanut, pre-towel traumatization.

But the fun doesn't stop there. As new bird parents 11 years ago, Mr. Nature Geek and I had read that it is a good idea with young birds to train them not to be afraid of a towel. The idea is that it makes vet appointments less stressful when the bird is wrapped up in a towel during examinations. So I took a towel and would drape it over Peanut, gently touch him with it, and otherwise attempt to acclimate him to it. Apparently what I did was forever screw up his birdy brain and today whenever he sees something clothlike and white, he wants to both intimidate it and mate with it. Ah, birds.

And yes, his song of intimidation is the theme to the Andy Griffith Show. 

They may be grey, but the love lives of the dolphin, silverfish, marine iguana, grey wolf, and Peanut are quite colorful. However you spend Valentine's Day this year, I'm glad you chose me to be your method of foreplay. Let's meet here next week for another secret rendezvous and get our geek on. Awww yeahhh.

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