There is only one purpose to all life — to reproduce itself. This cosmic order has been given to every cell in every being. It shapes the way we look, think and behave. In order to follow this order, the universe has designed a variety of ways: reproduction, using a male and female sperm and egg, seems to be the norm. But there are organisms that multiply themselves by splitting; one species that has seven sexes (Tetrahymena) and can multiply with any; species where females or egg-layers don’t need males to give birth; species like bacteria, where DNA is simply sent across a tube to another identical being. Creative coupling is the order of the day.
Male squid use a tentacle to stick sperm packets, called spermatophores, on to the heads of females. The sperm burrow into the skin. After that, their route is a mystery.
Dragonfly sperm-scrapers are a unique tool in the reproduction game, according to entomologists at the University of Arizona. Before mating, the male dragonfly uses one penis to scrape the female&’s organ and remove the sperm of any prior mating before delivering its own. It then uses its other set of genitals and moves sperm from the testes into the penis and then mates with her.
The male Adactylidium mite technically becomes a father while still inside his mother&’s body. The mother mite hatches up to nine eggs inside her body, and usually only one is male. This lot lives inside the mother and eats her body. Once matured, the females mate with their brother, then cut a hole in mom&’s dead body and leave, while the male dies of exhaustion.
Osedax worms live in the deep sea, where they feed on whale bones. The males are much smaller than the females. They live inside the females and “ejaculate” through the top of their heads, releasing sperm right near the opening where the female&’s eggs come out.
Flatworms are hermaphroditic sea slugs. When it is time to reproduce, one has to be the bottom and the other the top. To decide, they spar with their penises, and the one who is stabbed receives the sperm and bears the babies.
Some other animals get to be both sexes but not at the same time. The clownfish is born male but it can become female. Clownfish live in groups where only one couple gets to have sex. If the female dies, one of the larger males transforms into a female and the cycle continues. Similarly, some frog species will have members of a population change sex, either from male to female or female to male, in order to maintain the proper proportion of each gender to ensure the continuation of the group.
The New Mexico whiptail is a female lizard of a species that has no males. They don’t require fertilisation for their eggs to develop and hatch into new female lizards. However, they undertake mating rituals with each other, one taking a “male” role, and this has hormonal effects on the other, causing her to lay more eggs. A lizard will tend to take on the male role soon after she&’s laid her own eggs.
The aquatic Pipa frogs look like someone ran over them. Their breeding is quite unusual. When the female is ready to become a mother, her back becomes very soft, like a rotting sponge. The male climbs on to the female&’s back and holds her body with his front limbs. The male and female then turn over in the water. When the female is belly up and the male beneath her, she ejects some eggs, the male fertilises them but collects them between his belly and her back. They turn again and resume a normal “upright” position and the male uses his belly to push those eggs into the spongy back of the female. They keep doing these loops until she&’s gives up all her eggs, and he&’s pushed them all into the spongy tissue on her back. The eggs develop into froglets on the female&’s back and emerge.
Male orb-web spiders know they will be eaten by the female during sex. So they have developed an unusual strategy to save themselves. Once they’ve penetrated the female, they detach their genitalia — structures called palps — and scuttle away out of the female&’s reach. The palp continues to deliver sperm until the female manages to pull it out, which can take up to seven hours.
The South American freshwater Copella has a unique reproductive method. The male positions himself underneath some overhanging vegetation and invites a female. When one accepts his invitation, she positions herself directly alongside the male, and the pair leap out of the water together, attaching themselves by fin suction to the underside of a leaf. They produce and fertilise six-eight eggs, before falling back into the water. This procedure is repeated until as many as 200 eggs are attached to the leaf. The female carries on and the male keeps guard till the eggs hatch.
Most flowers have a relationship with bees and butterflies that helps reproduction. The insects get nectar and in return carry pollen from one flower to the next. Once this happens, the receiving flower starts the process of making the seeds that will grow into new flowers.
Certain species of orchids don’t find this strategy good enough. They don’t want the bee to simply go to the next flower, as this causes inbreeding. In the Mediterranean, a bee orchid, Ophrys apifera, looks exactly like the rear of a female bee, fur and all, with its head buried in a blue-petalled flower. Not only that, Ophrys mimic the scent of the female bee. Male bees fall to mating so vigorously with the flowers that they dislodge pollen packs pre-loaded with a special adhesive that sticks to their backs. After some frantic efforts at achieving bliss, the bee realises he has been fooled and flies quite far, collecting his wits. By the time he forgets and falls for the trick again, the Ophrys he chose is far away and so the strategy of the flower, in finding new flowers to pollinate, is successful.
An Australian marsupial, Antechenus, resembles a mouse with the bristly fur of a hedgehog. During the annual mating season, males copulate with many partners one after the other for up to 14 hours at a stretch. Days later, this marathon sex causes the males to develop sores, lose their hair, go blind and finally die of exhaustion.
Hermaphrodite land snails have both male and female sex organs. Once they’ve selected a likely partner, they flex a muscular sac inside their bodies and eject a dart into the other snail&’s head, which delivers mucus that readies the snail to receive a sperm packet. Some species jab their mates over and over with their darts, with one stabbing its mate more than 3,000 times. These darts pierce its head completely, even hitting the eyestalks.
Male bedbugs use their needle-like penises to puncture the females’ exoskeletons wherever they can. Sperm is deposited into the wound, where it travels through her body fluid to the ovaries.
Male bees, after inseminating the queen, die because their testicles explode inside her. This is an evolutionary necessity, with the penis inside the female, which seals off any chance of another male getting a mating with her. That is a serious commitment to the future.
Why look at animals for weird, wonderful and scary reproduction. Our own mythology is full of strange examples. Shiva and Parvati enjoyed an intimate moment and Shiva&’s seed fell on the ground. So much heat began emanating from it that it threatened to engulf the world in flames. Agni devoured the vital fluid. He felt so hot that he transferred the fluid to the wombs of six women, called Kritikas, who were turned into stars. They aborted their foetuses on the Himalaya mountains. The holy Ganga river carried the foetuses and Kartikeya was born in the reeds.
Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods, swallowed his lover, Goddess Metis. A few months later, he developed such a headache that he had his head chopped open with an axe. Out jumped his daughter, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.
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