There are two dominant urges that determine the survival of life on Earth… hunger and sex. An amalgamation of these two powerful compulsions influences natural selection and, therefore, the evolution of both external and internal body parts and the behaviour of virtually every living creature on our planet.
Long before sex began to govern life on land, simple organisms called protozoa learned how to multiply asexually through binary fission about two billion years ago. This involves splitting into two, then splitting again, and again, in geometric proportion. So successful has this protozoan reproduction been that to date anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 distinct protozoan species still exist. In fact, this reproductive strategy proved to be so effective, that some creatures that discovered how to reproduce sexually, such as aphids, can reproduce asexually as well.
But where is the romance in all that? Nature seems to have found an answer that has imbued the vast diversity of our planet with sexual shenanigans that would make even the most deviant human blush… as revealed by the images and supporting texts on the pages that follow.
Pharaoh cuttlefish Sepia pharaonis
Photo: Digant Desai.
Location: Seas off Thailand
The Blush of Sex: The sex life of decapods even fascinated Aristotle! When males woo females, both begin to blush different colours. They make love face to face and sperm sacs are inserted by males into the body cavity close to the females’ buccal chamber, using a special tentacle, the hectocotylus (arm of 100 suckers!). After using jets of water to clean out any prior spermatangia from earlier mating, the male breaks off the hectocotylus and leaves it to do the vital job of insemination. He then keeps guard over his female until her eggs are laid. But female cuttlefish are smarter and secretly mate with several males, whose sperm sacs she banks, fertilising the eggs only when she chooses to.
Velvet ant/wasp, Family Mutillidae
Photo: Ripan Biswas.Location:
Coochbehar, West Bengal
Sweeping Her Off Her Feet: Curiously, only males of this species have wings that they use to range far and wide in search of food… and, you better believe it, to sweep females off their feet! The mating ritual lasts for about two hours, during which the male will use his mandibles to grab his mate by the neck, It appears to be ‘rough sex’, but actually involves gently stroking her with his forelegs. In the moments before copulation takes place the female will stridulate for some seconds and the actual act of copulation, which includes the female being ‘hit’ on the back of her head by the male’s antenna, is over in two minutes. Why do males fly off with the females? Possibly those that can showcase their abilities to lift more females have a greater reproductive success rate!
Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus
Photo: Dr. Pramod Shanbhag.
Location: Bank of river Cauvery, Mysore
Sex for Favours: Male Blue-tailed Bee-eaters often bribe females to win sexual favours. Birds have only one orifice, the cloaca, or vent, which they use for evacuating digestive, urinary secretions and for reproductive purposes. When the time comes to find a mate, crucial body changes begin to take place in the bodies of both bee-eaters. Their testes and ovaries begin to swell and produce sperm and ova respectively. In most birds the male must balance on his female, as can be seen here. The female will move her tail to one side to facilitate the male who must ensure that their cloaca touch (cloacal kissing) so that sperm can be transferred quickly. The hormone factory in the birds remains active even a week after mating.
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
Photo: Amish Patel.
Location: Jamnagar, Gujarat
Beautiful ‘Nymphomaniacs’: Female Pheasant-tailed Jacanas are positively promiscuous with one female mating with as many as 20 males in a single breeding season! What is more, she insists that the males be the home-makers. Literally! They are expected to build perfect floating nests and then protect the eggs and the chicks when they hatch. If the male has to go somewhere, he will actually carry his young under his wings, their lissom limbs hanging down from the father’s body. Females jealously defend their territories though males are welcome to cohabit with her. Incredulously, once she has laid her eggs in the nests of different males, she turns her back on that family, leaving the male to do the job of bringing up the young.
Indian water buffalos Bubalus arnee
Photo: Hari Prasad Mallik.
Location: Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam
Stud Bull: Asiatic wild buffalo males are urine-sniffers! It is how they find out which female will respond to their sexual advances. Interestingly, females are sexually active at about 18 months of age, while it takes males twice that time to mature! Females will produce a calf every couple of years and upon maturity, male offspring will be turfed out of their natal herd and be forced to join a bachelor group. This is an evolutionary strategy to prevent rampant in-breeding. Dominant males may kill younger males from other herds, so as to inseminate females of the herd themselves. In Pobitora, as in virtually every other habitat that wild buffaloes are found, a primary threat to the species comes from ‘genetic swamping’, which essentially means a dilution of wild genes on account of mating with domestic buffaloes.
Coromandel marsh dart Ceriagrion coromandelianum
Photo: Bhavya Joshi.
Location: Rajkot, Gujarat
Jealous, Hot Sex: Female damselflies prefer hot males! Literally. They check a potential mate’s temperature because a warmer male probably holds a territory in more hospitable climes, thus giving her offspring a better chance of survival. A female will indicate her willingness to mate in a brazen display involving much wing-flapping and looping of her abdomen forwards and upwards to accept sperm from the male’s genitalia (he has two! But that’s another story!). The grateful male will then grab her thorax with his legs and the couple may remain locked in this circular position, until the male is reassured that it is his sperm, and not a competitor’s, that will fertilise the female’s eggs. Taking jealousy to another level altogether, he sometimes cleans out his mate, removing ‘old sperm’ before gifting her with his own!
Bronzegreen little skink Eutropis cf macularia
Photo: Ajay Kumar Thharavath.
Location: Ranthambhore, Rajasthan
Sex with a Sinuous Stranger: Male skinks have a terrific way of displaying their attraction to females… their flanks turn bright red! When one approaches a female, he turns his head towards her, flicks his tongue over her tail-base and then moves sinuously over her body, covering it with still more tongue-flicks! If she approves, she allows him to continue, if not, she promptly rejects him by retreating. All this is complemented by much head-bobbing and chin-rubbing. When she is ready, she will point her snout towards the ground, allowing her suitor to bite a skin fold at the nape of her neck and moves her whole body back and forth rhythmically. In a clutch they may actually locomote together, her tail lifted, his wrapped around her to facilitate the insertion of his hemipene. Copulation can last as long as ten minutes, after which the female departs, leaving him free to pursue more potential mates.
Assassin bug, Family Reduviidae
Photo: Vipin Baliga.
Location: Virajpet, Kodagu, Karnataka
Assasin Sex: Female assasin bugs are generally more interested in their next meal than in sex. Males must therefore woo females with great persistence! Excitement in the males is revealed when their antennae are raised and they assume a typical jumping posture. This pair copulated on a tree trunk for a full 30 minutes, with the male pressing down on the female’s head and stroking her genitalia. When the deed was done, they indulged in what is best described as post-copulatory riding, a ritual lasting three full hours! When done, they separated with exaggerated sloth and the female ejected the spermatophore capsule!
Phantom crane fly, Family Ptychopteridae
Photo: Vipin Baliga.
Location: Virajpet, Kodagu, Karnataka
All Sex No Food: Phantom crane flies can mate in mid-air, or even hanging down from the surface of a plant. Lifelong, they only have one thing on their minds… sex! Even at the expense of food. The last appendage of the male and female abdomen fuse momentarily to achieve copulation. The female is larger (the one in bottom) and possesses a sharp ovipositor (egg-laying device) on the tip of her abdomen. Post-sex, fertilisation takes place inside her body. Reproduction is their life’s sole purpose! As the photographer gazed in wonder at the translucent abdomen of the female, he saw a few small green blobs moving inside her! Then the wind picked up, and they took to the air to vanish, still copulating!
Spiny leaf beetle, Family Chrysomelidae
Photo: Vipin Baliga.
Location: Virajpet, Kodagu, Karnataka
Rough Sex: These prickly leaf beetles enjoy multiple mates and their sexual encounters may last for days! When males woo females, they are often given the cold shoulder through the simple expedient of the female positioning her abdomen just out of reach of the male’s genitalia. Sometimes she even plays hard ball and tries to kick him! Leaf beetles of the family Chrysomelidae have a simple copulation strategy. They clamber on to the female’s body while holding on for dear life to her carapace. One look at her spines and you understand that this ‘position superior’ could end up seriously damaging the male! Mating often takes place on plants on which the female can lay her eggs. Despite the wind that day, the photographer says they didn’t budge for more than an hour, till they were done. And what if the female decides post-coitus that it was all wrong? She simply ejects the male’s sperm!
Indian rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis
Photo: Dr. Joachim Grammer.
Location: Kaziranga, Assam
Sadomasochistic Sex: While the actual copulation process in rhinos is typical of most large mammals, the preceding courtship is anything but romantic! The female advertises her availability by squirting urine and making rutting calls. When males detect that a female is in oestrus, brutal fights ensue for the right to mate with her. But, once a winner is established, it’s up to the female to chase him down. The female will vocalise and actively follow her chosen mate, who will thrash his head about aggressively. The couple will then wrestle and fight in an exhausting and dangerous display before he actually mounts her. Injuries from this kind of foreplay are not uncommon! Interestingly, a female rhino will only ovulate when she is away from her mother.
Malabar gliding frog Rhacophorus malabaricus
Photo: Varun Satose.
Location: Amboli, Maharashtra
Desperate Sex: Where female populations are low, the mating behaviour of the Malabar gliding frog is characterised by a desperate attempt by the female to be united with her chosen lover. The female selects a mate based on the vocalisation she likes best. As she tries to approach him, she is ambushed by other lovelorn males. Often, three or four males clamber on top of her at the same time in a frantic attempt to mate. The female picks a leaf on a tree overhanging a waterbody and then strokes the back of the lucky male, that has engaged her in amplexus, by reversing her hind limbs. This causes the male to release seminal fluid which he agitates into a foam that the female then covers with leaves.
Asian elephant Elephas maximus
Photo: Debasis Bose.
Location: Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand
It Was Masturbation, We Know!: The photographer saw this one-tusked bull elephant in musth pushing excitedly against a tree. He informs Sanctuary: “Temporal glands were inflamed, the sharp smell of temporin was in the air. Soon a greenish fluid began to be discharged from his penis. We observed the bull tapping and rubbing his penis under his belly vigorously for about 20 seconds. His body tensed, he then placed his trunk in his mouth. Suddenly, the bull went into an orgasmic spasm, transferring his body weight to his hind legs, rhythmically jerking his penis against his underbelly. We saw the viscous seminal discharge and realised when he casually moved away that what we saw was the unbelievable… an elephant masturbating!”
Net-winged beetles, Family Lycidae
Photo: Dr. Raju Kasambe.
Location: Nagpur, Maharashtra
Group Sex: Not surprisingly, both male and female net-winged beetles are polygamous and the competition for mates is fierce. Males seem to prefer the largest females they can grab a hold of. In their mating frenzy, other males will often try to dislodge the lucky one and take over. The copulating male responds by clutching on to his prize ever tighter and he stays in position that way for as long as he is able and until his sperm has possibly well and truly done its job. As in the case of so many insects, some members of the Lycidae family have no purpose at all after their metamorphosis, apart from reproduction.
House fly, Family Muscidae
Photo: Nitin Prabhudesai.
Location: Pune, Maharashtra
Quick Starters: House flies reach sexual maturity within hours of birth. Though contact may be made mid-air, actual copulation will be where both can be anchored with his metathoracic tarsi draped beneath the female’s abdomen on the ventral surface. When a male positions himself on the dorsum of her thorax, both will be facing the same direction and it is the female who decides whether or not to allow him to ‘strike’. If he is found wanting, she nonchalantly flies away. But if he is just the stranger she is seeking, she will allow genital contact. She is also the one that calls off the encounter by shaking her body vigorously to disengage from her suitor.
Asiatic lion Panthera leo
Photo: Mona Patel.
Location: Gir National Park, Gujarat
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: It’s very rarely documented in the wild, but here we see two Asiatic lionesses indulging in what is undoubtedly lesbian behaviour. Lion experts say that a female may initiate the process by pursuing another and edging under her to stimulate a mounting. When the act takes place, conduct associated with heterosexual sex is often observed, including gentle neck bites, licking, pelvic lunges, and much growling. Often the partners reverse their positions. Non-human creatures do what comes naturally to them. Humans, however, find themselves torn between natural urges (that some people try desperately to label unnatural) and social diktats.
Bonnet macaque Macaca radiata and lion-tailed macaque Macaca silenus
Location: Agumbe, Karnataka
That’s Weird: When different species copulate, such as this bonnet and lion-tailed macaques, with no chance at all of any offspring emerging, it confuses evolutionary biologists. What you see here is not unheard of, but unusual nevertheless. In Ranthambhore, a dominant rhesus macaque led a troupe of larger langurs for almost two years, before he was taken out by a tougher male langur. All that while he would engage in frequent bouts of futile sex with females in what primatologists opine is little more than dominance display. In the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, grey langurs have been seen mounting bonnet macaque females in heat. It would be safe to call such sex unnatural, but certainly not immoral!
Asian elephants Elephas maximus
Photo: Shivang Mehta.
Location: Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand
Male on Male: The photographer was somewhat taken aback when he saw this sight of two bull elephants in advanced stages of a sexual encounter. While prudes try to label gay sex as ‘unnatural’, nature itself has no such issues. Virtually all wild creatures have at some point been observed exhibiting homosexual behaviour to some degree or other. And the purpose may not merely be intercourse. Emotions such as care and love are involved. The entire gamut of sexual pleasure is commonplace in the animal world, including group sex, bisexual encounters and sex for pleasure with no intent to produce offspring.
Related Stories: Wild Sex – The Making Of Nature.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 5, October 2014.