Venus as a Boy

If you haven’t heard yet about the female insects found to have penis-like genitals, then you might be living under a rock.

If it’s a rock that is found in a Brazilian cave, come on out of there and start searching for these sex-reversed female Neotrogla booklice. Unfortunately, Google-ing this genus will only retrieve for you one giant Neutrogena ad. And since there aren’t any good, actual photos of this recently discovered species, we’ll have to imagine this as our female of interest:

Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 4.44.51 PM

Thankfully, the researchers who discovered this strange, sex-reversed genitalia have managed a proper photo of it.

(Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

The copulatory organ, or gynosome, of the female Neotrogla booklice. (Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

What a marvel!

While not the norm for females in the animal kingdom, a copulatory structure such as this tends to be typical in males of internally fertilizing species because it provides them with a way to deliver their sperm inside the female. Instead, these female booklice use this gynosome (note: not penis) to enter the male!

The male’s opening is similar to a vagina, and during copulation (which lasts from 1 1/2 to 3 days by the way!) he provides his partner with a nutritious ejaculate (composed of sperm as well as seminal fluids), or a nuptial gift if you will. But no wedding vows are necessary for this act.

(Photo Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

Microscopic image of a copulating booklice pair.  (Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al. 2014)

It’s hypothesized that this system evolved due to the cave environment of these booklice. With limited resources, nuptial gifts are likely very costly for the males to produce. Meanwhile, females probably want to acquire as many of these nuptial gifts in their lifetime as they can by mating multiple times. When males and females have a conflict between their strategies relating to reproduction – be it the amount of mating they do or how they do it – we have a classic case of sexual conflict. 

A tell-tale sign of such conflict is the fact that this gynosome is equipped with spines, not unlike the male penises of many organisms, including your cat!

An SEM of a male cat's penis. It has a band of about 120–150 backwards-pointing 1mm-long spines. (Photo Credit: Dr. Mark E. Peterson)

SEM of a male cat’s penis, covered in 120–150 backwards-pointing 1mm-long spines. (Credit: Dr. Mark E. Peterson)

I know, you’ll never look at Mewbacca the same again.

Why the long-spines? The better to hold on to you, my dear.

Researchers discovered these spines on the female booklice copulatory organ by trying to separate a mating pair. The male’s abdomen tore off, but his reproductive area remained intact with the female!

Thus, these spines likely evolved to aid the female in lengthening the amount of time spent copulating, thereby increasing the amount of nutritious ejaculatory gifts they can extract from a male.

Before you get too excited about the idea of an insect sex marathon though, I leave you with this:

Were you to wake up one morning and find that you had been transformed into a Neotrogla female, would you rather:  continue to mate with your current male and run the risk of depleting his special sauce, or separate with said current male in search of a new male who is possibly a virgin and therefore full of special sauce?






One With The Freaks

Behold, the female anglerfish. Though a bit unsightly, she is certainly a product of her environment. Living under the extreme conditions of total darkness and desolation has set the stage for a most bizarre sexual habit beyond your wildest imagination!

Indeed, her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

See. She is just oozing sex appeal.

As a deep-ocean fish, she lives in total darkness, which means she must use something other than vision to detect her prey and mates. You probably recognize the bioluminescent lure that dangles from her head.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch and Christopher P. Kenaley

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch and Christopher P. Kenaley

This is but one solution to the problem of prey capture. Another solution is to sit and wait for prey to come to her. Since the enormity of this ocean zone makes encounters rare, she does not have a lot of energy to go searching for more. Instead, she sits and waits to ambush prey that are captivated by the ‘flashlight’ on her head. Great, now she’s solved the dilemma of her next meal. But what about finding and attracting mates when she’s ready to get freaky?

For a moment, let’s think about the life of a male anglerfish. His one goal in life is to find a female – a mere sprinkle that never moves in a landscape of dark nothingness. How will he accomplish this feat?

There are almost 320 species of anglerfish, and almost half of all families feature extreme sexual dimorphism – females are much bigger in size than their suitors. The largest anglerfish species is over 6 feet long. This specimen was likely a female, as are most individuals photographed. In other species, the dwarf males may be as tiny as 6.2mm in length!

Why so tiny?

Instead of wasting time growing larger, some male anglerfish opt to mature quickly so they can race to find a female as soon as possible. Once he begins the race, he presumably hones in on long-range pheromones emitted by the female.

Sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, FEMALE!!!!!! Let the sexual parasitism begin.

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

Photo Credit: Theodore W. Pietsch

See that wee little bump up there on the female’s back? That’s a male that has fused to her for life by biting onto her flesh. Biting her releases an enzyme that digests both his mouth and her skin, allowing full-on fusion of their bodies. Now that’s a commitment! Why would he give her up after he won the lottery by finding her? Imagine the despair of trying to find another mate in the vast, dark bathypelagic zone. Instead, he concedes to the ultimate form of monogamy.

But not from her perspective.

In some species, a female can have anywhere from two to eight males attached to her at once! Once attached, these males degenerate into little more than a pair of testes that may be used at her whim! He gets a mate, and she gets a personal sperm bank!

The reason these males are referred to as sexual parasites is because in some species, the males’ fusion with the female also entails him fusing with her circulatory system for his own life support. Though he doesn’t require much since he is small, the female must sustain the male throughout his life. Still, a small price to pay for an immediate source of sperm in desperate times.

Sadly, parasitic males may never mature and will die unless they find a female. If only Shakespeare had known of this age-old love story! I suppose this cartoonish-version of such a weird reproductive strategy will have to suffice instead. Enjoy!