World Oceans Day 2019 Part 3: Luring and Losing Lovers

This is Part 3 of a series celebrating World Ocean Day 2019 and the theme Gender and Oceans. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 to learn more about the wild and wonderful ways females play a role in long-term sexual success in the sea.

When it comes to sex, there’s an inherent tradeoff females must negotiate between attracting preferred mates and warding off those she has no interest in.  It’s not an easy task, and often, the effort to dissuade an amorous male can be costly…or even fatal.  In the following species, females demonstrate some creative ways to both attract mates they want and avoid those they don’t.

Love Potions

There’s a new singles craze happening around hipster neighborhoods these days.  Known as XXX, the events provide an opportunity for individuals to find their match by smelling one another’s t-shirts. While it may seem strange, the power of scent in seduction is one of nature’s oldest tricks of the trade. And it’s especially powerful in the sea, where chemical compounds travel easily through the water and can act as powerful intoxicants.

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

Illustration by Missy Chimovitz

Female Maine lobsters use this to their advantage when faced with seducing overly aggressive large males during mating season.  Ready to attack any lobster that approaches their den, these large males are formidable and could easily crush a female. Lucky for her, she’s got a tried and tested love potion conveniently housed in her bladder. Yes, we’re talking urine. And in this species, a few spritzes of pee in the face is all it takes to convert the most agro male into a gentle lover.

When a female decides which male she wants to mate with, she approaches his den and then quickly shoots a stream of urine into the opening as the male lunges out.  In lobster, the bladder sits above the brain and links—conveniently—to two nozzles just below the eye stalks.  So, she can squirt pee forward and then scram before he attacks.  She then repeats this for a few days.  After about a week, the effect takes hold, and the male begins to warm to her unique scent.  Eventually, he invites her—and only her—into his den to hang out and eventually mate, once the female molts.

It’s a kinky affair, but for female lobster, golden showers are a must when it comes to safe sex.  

Faking It

Cephalopods—octopus, squid, and cuttlefish—are known for their remarkable color-changing abilities.  Often, we think of these talents going toward camoflauge—to help with attacking prey, or avoiding predation.  But these abilities can also help with sex.   Often, it is the males who use their patterns to attract females—or fool rival males—as we see, for example, in cross-dressing male cuttlefish. But females make use of their dynamic skin, too.

In fact, in one squid species, females are known to adjust their coloration to mimic males—specifically, the dark shading where the testes lie—as a way to deter unwanted mates.  These females tactfully fake having male parts on the inside, by changing their skin tone on the outside. And the ruse works.  Studies show that females with this specific coloration are harassed less by courting males.

Maze-Like Vaginas

For most mammals, the female vagina is a straight tunnel. And a clear pathway to get sperm to the egg.  Not so in some small whales and dolphins.  Instead, we find a complex obstacle course of twists and turns, flaps and folds, blind alleys and dead ends.   It’s a gauntlet. And we are still trying to understand what it’s for.  Afterall, building these structures takes energy; evolution doesn’t just make this kind of stuff for fun.

Maze.jpg

One theory is that we tend to see these structures in species where females likely have little control over mating, and may be subject to multiple copulations by multiple males in quick succession.  With little ability to screen mates prior to mating, Dr. Sarah Mesnick and Dr. Dara Orbach,  hypothesize that perhaps these complex structures could work to help “screen” mates simply by making it hard for sperm to get to the egg—only the most tenacious, or “fit”, sperm will succeed.  It’s also possible that the female could somehow close or open, via muscular contractions, different pathways, making it more or less easy for sperm to reach the cervix.  For now, what we do know is that understanding whale vaginas may tell us a whole lot more than just how big a whale penis is. To learn more about how one actually studies a whale vagina, check one of my all-time favorite blogs: Getting To Know Whale Vaginas in Seven Steps.

 And that’s the end of this series honoring some of the more unusual and impressive female strategies that help govern successful sex in the sea.  Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them. Hope you found it intriguing and inspiring.  And here’s to a future where Gender and Oceans no longer needs to be a theme for World Ocean Day; rather, inclusivity and understanding are the norm and in so doing, we’ve accelerated sustainable solutions for our oceans across the world.