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?






1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Little Fury Bugs | Animal Behavior Research Oddities

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