Isn't Love Grand?

Isn't Love Grand?

Amor omnia vincit! The ways of love among animals are as different as the ultramicroscopic virus is from the 180—ton blue whale. To humans many animal rituals appear bizarre, corrupt, deviate, ridiculous, kinky, and sometimes counterproductive. But each species is guided by a sure instinct provided by nature's impeccable logic. Regardless of the manner in which it is accomplished, the primary function of all animals on earth is to perpetuate each species.

Perhaps no member of the animal kingdom is so self—sacrificing as the male praying mantis. He is no doubt aware of his mate's reputation for insatiable cannibalism; yet the mating instinct coerces him to go ahead and take his chances. One mantid, for whom biting off the head is an essential part of the mating ritual, is most cautious. At his first glimpse of a female, the male will freeze. Then, creeping up to her in extremely slow motion (one—eighth of an inch in one hour), he carefully keeps to the left, out of her line of vision, so that she won't devour him prematurely.

Finally, if he has judged the distance correctly, he springs at her and lands in the proper position for mating to begin. Unfortunately for him, a neural mechanism within his head inhibits the release of sperm, so the head must be destroyed in order that the eggs be fertilized. This happens automatically when the female bites off his head. Because nerve centers of the mantis are located in various parts of its body, the headless male can walk, raise his wings, and proceed with the mating game. The female continues to feed on him, absorbing essential proteins, until mating is complete. Often only his wings remain.

In most species of frogs the male does not chase after the female; he merely gets her attention, and the female comes to him. When the mating season approaches, the male frog sits in a stream or pond with other males, usually in a large assemblage. They all blow up their cheeks and croak, the result being a cacophony of grunts, bellows, squawks, trumpets, hoots, honks, caterwauls, and yodels that cannot be ignored. Apparently the noise captures the attention of female frogs, for they will head for its point of origin.

Many male frogs croak in a chorus in a well—organized, highly refined din. In several species of frogs, scientists have observed a "choral master" who leads the croaking. One can almost imagine the warty conductor standing on a rock podium that overlooks the choir of males, waving a stick and instructing, "All together, boys!"

Once the females arrive, mass mating hysteria begins. So carried away is the male that he will, without hesitation, grab and leap on whatever happens in his path—a stick or stone or even another male—and try to mate with it. Or several males may jump onto the same female, or a male leaps to piggyback on another male who is busily riding a female. The otherwise—engaged male seems unaware of the burden on his back.

In the midst of all this mating frenzy a male may grab a lump of mud, which being soft and malleable feels much like a female. The mud is modeled in his tight grasp until it assumes the modified shape of a frog. The male, thus deceived by his creation, may hold on for days waiting in vain for the captive lump of clay to release spawn. Despite the mud—loving male and other hit—or—miss frog matings, in the 300 million years that frogs have been on earth many species have obviously developed successful, albeit unique, methods of spawning.

Most of the 2,800 species of dance flies (family Empididae) are murderous predators. The male, being smaller than the female, instinctively knows he must protect himself from his cannibalistic mate. He may distract her by offering an edible marriage gift or a "toy" of sufficient interest to keep her occupied while he mates with her. The males of several dance fly species bring the gift to the female wrapped in a beautiful package. With spinning glands at the tips of their forelegs, they spin a fine white silken thread around a captured insect. The female accepts the packaged gift and busies herself with unwrapping it.

The males of some species are overly cautious in their deception. The tricky male will capture a very tiny insect (and what he considers tiny is almost microscopic from the human perspective). Around this minute morsel the courting male will spin a gigantic silken balloon, often twice his size. The female readily accepts this enormous package and straightaway sets about the arduous, time—consuming task of unraveling it. By the time she reaches the infinitesimal gift within the bigger—than—life package, the male has consummated his marriage and moved on. The ultimate in deceptive packaging is achieved by the male who weaves a silken blimp and presents the oversized gift to a favored female who unravels and unravels, only to discover long after the male has mated and fled that there is nothing inside!

The males of the species Hilara sartor are probably responsible for the common name "dance fly." They do not try to deceive the female with worthless, ephemeral, or nonexistent gifts. Rather each spins a beautiful white veil that he spreads out between his four posterior legs. The veil in no way suggests food, but when courting males gather together and appear to dance in the air with the sun shining on them, they lure hundreds of females. Viewers describe the scene as if tiny elves and mystical fairies are dancing in the golden sunlight, twisting and turning in the gentle breeze. The glowing white veils attract females just as the gift parcel attracts their less ethereal cousins. The female H. sartor accepts the bridal veil from the male and lands in the grass clutching her gift. While she plays with the veil, the male mates with her and then leaves abruptly.

The loligo squid, which includes several varieties from 4 to 10 inches long, would escape our attention entirely but for their spectacular mating experience. At mating time, a calm sea will suddenly appear to be boiling as the squid gather spontaneously in unbelievable throngs and participate in sexual orgies that may last up to four days. The mass of frenzied creatures with a single purpose grows constantly in numbers as more and more loligo arrive on the scene.

The living tide of squid becomes incredibly dense, and all of them are obsessively undistractable. They are particularly vulnerable at mating time, and the sea creatures and birds for which they are an important food are quick to take advantage of the windfall. Sharks can move through a mass of squid with their jaws wide open, gulping and swallowing the abundant harvest nonstop. They feast without diverting a single squid from the orgy at hand. Scientists observing a rendezvous of squid have estimated several million of them in a volume of water 400 feet in diameter and 10 feet deep, about 80 ten—inch squid in each cubic foot.

The first and only mission of each squid in the great gathering is its frantic search for a partner. In the manic mob confusion, most individuals attach themselves to the first available squid, male or female, hurriedly separating unless an opposite—sex squid joins them. Many are embracing in pairs, their tentacles intertwined; others are dancing face to face, and numerous masses of writhing tentacles include five or six individuals. By the second night more actual matings and fewer nuptial dances are occurring. Color changes accompany the increased erotic frenzy as the squids dance and intertwine. Normally delicate in color, iridescent and almost translucent, the male squids become an intense purple, and their heads and tentacles are striped in red and maroon during the embrace.

Actual mating takes place when the male loligo squid transfers spermatophores (torpedo—shaped tubes filled with sperm) from his mantle cavity to the glandular patch under the female's mantle. His left fourth arm is modified to scoop and deposit the tubes. This he repeats several times before relaxing his embrace. The pair then sink gradually to the bottom, where the female deposits gelatinous capsules of eggs, anchoring them to the sea bed. In three days the females deposit 10 to 20 capsules, arranging them in bunches that resemble chrysanthemums. The male, making doubly sure of fertilization, emits semen into the water surrounding the eggs.

The number of eggs produced by a squid orgy is colossal. The egg capsules may cover 200 acres of seabed. By the time the females have deposited all of the eggs, they are exhausted to the point of death; many of them will be eaten by the somewhat fatigued males. In the end most adults from the rendezvous of squids will be corpses among two billion to seven billion eggs.

The egg capsules appear unprotected, but the covering hardens and its very unpleasant taste renders them acceptable food for none but the least discriminating predators. Within a month the eggs will hatch, and new squids, small but recognizable, will emerge into the sea to become an immediate food supply for predators. Those that escape begin a life that will climax with its predictably violent, frenzied, agonizing finale.

Mating and fertilization in bedbugs is involved, difficult, and bizarre. To begin with, the female has no external opening in which to deposit sperm. The male triumphs over this minor inconvenience by making his own entrance; on the fourth abdominal segment of the female is a notch that marks the spot. Here, far from the female's reproductive system, the male punctures a hole into a mass of tissue that protects her internal organs from being lacerated. He discharges a large quantity of semen into the female, and the sperm make their way through the blood to sperm reservoirs.

After the female takes a meal, the sperm migrate to the ovaries to fertilize eggs as they are formed. On fertilization the eggs are extruded from the opening made by the male. The opening heals over, but scars from each penetration remain. Therefore the entomologist, and possibly the male bedbug if he's interested, can determine how many times the female has mated simply by counting her scars.

Mating and egg—laying for the bedbug can occur whenever the temperature is high enough. On their preferred host, humans, the temperature is almost always controlled to their prescription. The rate at which the eggs hatch also depends on the temperature and how recently the female had fed before she laid the eggs; it can take from one to six weeks. The larvae cannot molt on their way to becoming adults until after they have found food. Tiny, white, and transparent, the bedbug larva can be seen clearly only when its body is engorged with blood.

Gift—giving, particularly of food, has a variety of meanings and purposes among animals. The male may attempt to seduce the female with the gift, or he may give her something to eat so she won't eat him. He may be offering a bribe that will demonstrate his superiority over others, or he may be showing simple, practical evidence of his ability to provide for her during her confinement.

The northern terns are species of birds that live in a nonaggressive, cooperative community. Though the male tern does not have to seduce, distract, bribe, or impress the female, he does reassure her with the ritual presentation of food. The offering of a superior—quality fish is his way of testing whether the female likes him enough to mate with him. His gift helps her to assess his potential as a provider during the egg—laying and incubation period.

The male tern ready to mate will catch an especially handsome fish and carry it back to the breeding colony. There he struts back and forth among a group of eligible females, holding his head high and thrusting out his chest. As he parades he slyly inspects females for one worthy of his attention and his gift. Finally he will offer his fish to one of them. The female's assorted reactions may include ignoring the male completely, turning her back on him, or looking critically at the fish and walking away bored and annoyed. She may even take the fish in her beak for a moment but must return it promptly if she doesn't intend to mate with the owner. To keep the fish for even a brief time means that she is pledged to be his mate, despite any lack of charm or delicacy of the suitor or his gift.

A male tern who has been turned down by numerous females may hawk his wares to the entire colony. Then, if no female responds to the offer he will, almost in defiance, eat the fish himself and fly off to catch a more attractive fish to offer to another group of eligible females. He will continue the ritual until he has successfully found the female tern of his dreams.

The female that does accept the fish shows no sign of eagerness to eat it. She simply holds one end of the fish in her beak while the male, possibly as a sign of emotional harmony between them, holds the other end of the fish in his beak. The male and female just stand quietly alongside each other, staring straight ahead, each of them loosely holding on to opposite ends of the fish. This test of mutual generosity may last an undetermined length of time.

And so, when the moon comes over the mountain, its silvery light may shine on two very weary birds, a male and a female, standing alongside each other, staring straight ahead and still holding on to opposite ends of a smelly old fish!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning