The Female Of The Species
Executive Director of WTI, Vivek Menon takes a playful look at prevalent feminine clichés and the wild females who embody them.
Photo: Rudra Mahapatra/WTI.
I was thinking, rather randomly one International Women’s Day, of the seven favourite clichés that a man might use when he thinks of the word ‘woman’.
I came up with a list of attributes – some of which, admittedly, women have tried to dissociate their collective persona from – and for the intellectually frugal but nevertheless compelling reason of having nothing else to do on a sunny afternoon, I applied them to all the lady animals I could think of.
Now when I say lady animals I mean the female members of a species, and not individual lady animals like Sundari, the lady dog in my house. And as I unfold my list, I hasten to clarify that it is in boring old alphabetical order – lest I be accused of bringing any of my gender’s biases to the fore.
First on the list (alphabetically, mind you) but also the most difficult to find. Aphrodites, Sophia Lorens, Cleopatras and Kareena Kapoors abound in the human world, separated only by space and time. But among non-human animals, males are the ones that are flashy and good looking; females tend to be understated and drab. Consider the mane of the lion or the glorious train of the peacock and you get the picture.
But there are, as always, exceptions to the rule. The Superb Starling in Africa is one such case in which the lady is quite, well, superb. Glossy iridescent blue with rufous flanks and a shining diamond eye, the Superb gal is just as flashy as her potential mates. I believe it has to do with competitive breeding in cooperative social groups. Some starlings like the Superb have as many as 30 birds in a group, more than half of which are females – which means the girls need to compete to get the males as well!
You can’t beat guppies when it comes to being fickle, especially in their choice of mate. A female guppy will mate with a male and then, in as little as seven minutes, will be busy on the lookout for another one!
Even more curiously, she will not choose a mate that looks anything like her ex. If you put a female guppy in a fishbowl with any number of males that have the same stripe pattern as the one she just mated with, she circles around avoiding all of them. Put in a male with a different pinstripe and ah, she is interested once again.
So female guppies change their idea of a perfect mate... every seven minutes! Fortunately this fickleness lasts only through the breeding season and not their entire lifespan of about two years.
Think fidelity and you think of penguins, especially the South American Magellanic Penguins, which travel thousands of kilometres in search of food, but return to their mates every year to raise a brood together. The highest recorded period of fidelity in this species is 16 years, of breeding lives that span about 20 years.
Both male and female penguins are faithful; they don’t engage in extra-pair copulation (a wonderful biological term that reduces old-fashioned adultery to an academic exercise) like some other birds with lifelong companions – I’m looking at you, swallows and cranes (apologies to folks who swoon over how Sarus Cranes mate for life)!
The female Baya Weaver tops my list of non-human homemakers. The poor male has to build several nests – sometimes up to a dozen – before the female will deign to accept him as a mate. And each nest is not just any old assemblage of twigs and moss; it is an elaborate woven grass adobe, with appropriate chambers and an entrance that has to be just right in its length and slenderness. You may think her picky, but the Baya Weaver knows that she isn’t just selecting a mate or choosing a nest: she is picking out a home.
And at least she isn’t like the fickle female Bowerbird, which makes the male build a bower and decorate it with all sorts of blue and flashy objects to woo her – and once mating is done, flies off to make her own nest, leaving him to try and find another female!
What better mother could one have than the largest being on land, the elephant? In the elephant world, the young probably brag about the size of their mommies: “I bet my mommy is bigger than yours,” they might say.
Have you seen an elephant herd gathered around a baby? Mothers, sisters, aunts and grannies all come together to envelop the newborn in the greatest maternal blanket of them all. Their legs form a protective circle, their trunks caressing the baby with comforting, soothing touches. And the moment anyone approaches, you get an ear-spreading, screeching trumpet. Approach at your peril, for these females are the epitome of maternal care.
There are many contenders to the ‘sexy’ crown, but presumably a female praying mantis is just about the most sexy thing on Earth to a male praying mantis. I believe she must score over all other alluring gals of any species whatsoever, for which sane-thinking man would jump into bed with a girl who he knows, from biology and history, will end up chewing his head off after mating. (Well maybe I know a few human examples, but figuratively, not literally.)
What makes the male do this is pure sexual allure. What possesses the female to do what she does is a matter of debate. Is it that she wants to be the sole possessor of her mate’s genes, not allowing any other womb to have that prerogative? Or is it just that after she has had good sex, she gets hungry – and the male, who minutes before was her object of passion, is now reduced to a potentially nice green protein high?
Photo: Ripan Biswas.
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Irina Dunn once said (no, it wasn’t Gloria Steinem as is commonly believed). Bonellia viridis, a sea slug that is rarely known outside the world of marine biology, would seem to agree.
Female bonellias are the only animals I know that have reduced the males in their lives to microscopic status – quite literally. Male bonellias are microscopic and have no brain or heart. They have relatively large reproductive organs and a large sucker, and live (hold your breath) inside the urino-genital system of the female! ‘Do what you are meant to do, you sucker,’ they seem to say, ‘and don’t bother pretending the rest of you is of any interest to us.’ Ah! The imagery for some of the more extreme women’s libbers out there!
Of course there are many other attributes that I haven’t mentioned: ‘provider’, for instance, which the lioness surely is, going forth to hunt to feed her family far more than any indolent lion ever does. Or ‘deceptive’, as some female lantern bugs are, colour coding themselves in a way that attracts males of their own species to mate with, and males of other species to eat. Or indeed, ‘nymphomaniac’, such as the East African topi antelope female, which mates with more than 40 males in succession when in the mood!
Whoever said that women were simple, and why would we want them to be that way?
The author is a conservationist, writer, photographer and the Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India.
Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.