Everything you ever wanted to know about wild sex...
But, be warned, a new exhibition shows what a beastly business animal reproduction can be
Sunday 30 January 2011
The Natural History Museum is to harness public curiosity about the almost infinite variety of carnal knowledge with an exhibition that lays out toe-curling truths about wild sex.
Mostly, testosterone rules, and at this point the squeamish may want to look away. Not only is a male snake's tongue forked, so is his penis – in case a reluctant female tries to evade him and he misses his aim first time, he can have another go.
There is, says Tate Greenhalgh, developer of the exhibition Sexual Nature, which opens at the museum on 11 February, "sperm competition" which involves some species being extremely well endowed – the tiny blue wren bird, for instance, has testes that account for a quarter of his body weight.
The chimpanzee, given the promiscuity of his species, has developed powerful gonads to make sure any offspring is his own. "It's not just mating, it's reproducing," she said. "They are able to produce enough sperm not only to fertilise the female's eggs, but to form a barrier that prevents any other sperm from getting through. Hedgehogs do it too."
The delightfully named banana slug will bite off its own penis and leave it in the female to prevent any other slug depositing its DNA.
In the hyena world it is the female that rules, choosing her mate, guarding territory, rearing cubs and allowing the male to stay or kicking him out as she sees fit. Her genitalia have even evolved to look like the male's.
The star of the exhibit will be Guy the Gorilla, once an idol at London Zoo, who is returning to the spotlight 33 years after his death (and a visit to the taxidermist). He is a typical alpha male, with a 73in chest and a huge neck, but don't be fooled. "Alive, he may only have had sex once or twice a year," Ms Greenhalgh said, "and his penis would only have been about three centimetres erect, because he didn't have to compete – he had his harem and nobody challenged him for it".
The barnacle's penis, by contrast, is 30 times its body length, and the male salmon's effort to reproduce is so great he often dies of exhaustion.
"Survival doesn't always take precedence over reproduction," Ms Greenhalgh said. "The peacock develops its glorious plumage to attract females, but it also makes him very conspicuous to predators and is often the cause of his downfall."
The museum's own most recent discovery concerns the humble water beetle, the male of which does not like to take no for an answer. As a result, he has developed suckers on his feet that allow him to get a grip on the female's carapace; in response, she has developed ridges on her back so that she can dislodge him if she doesn't find him appealing.
The impetus for Sexual Nature came from last year's exhibit on Charles Darwin, which attracted 155,000 visitors. Darwin was interested in the survival of species, but also in reproduction, an area to which the NHM's own researchers have devoted a lot of work.
Some 300 zoologists, botanists and palaeontologists are working with millions of specimens to add to our knowledge of the natural world. They are currently researching the DNA of mosquitoes so that malaria-carrying species can be more easily identified, located and eliminated.
Sharon Ament, director of public engagement, said: "Many people don't realise how much a scientific research centre this museum is, and always has been. The Darwin Centre, where you can see the scientists at work, has opened many eyes, and we hope our new approach in our exhibitions will open them still further."
The male of the species is endowed with a forked penis to prevent the female escaping.
Guy the Gorilla
The star of the exhibit returns 33 years after his death. His penis was about three centimetres erect because he did not have to compete with other males.
The crustacean has a penis 30 times its body length, while the unfortunate male salmon can die from exhaustion.
Produce enough sperm to fertilise the female's eggs and to form a barrier preventing any other's sperm from getting through.
Bites off its own penis to leave it in the female, preventing others from depositing more DNA.
The glorious plumage that attracts the female of the species is also very conspicuous to predators and can lead to the male's downfall.
Leftover coffee 'can help fight global warming'
Pope Francis calls for a new system of global government to tackle climate change
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Big Six energy companies have 'quietly abandoned their green electricity tariffs'
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 President Obama comments on Humans of New York photo from Iran
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 5 German police forced to ask public to stop bringing donations for refugees arriving by train
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 200,000 back our campaign
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company produces a wide ra...
£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...
£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...