Sperm Warfare (Or: Why it Takes 1 Billion Sperm to Make One Zygote)

iStock/Bet_Noire
iStock/Bet_Noire

The average man produces roughly 525 billion sperm cells over his lifetime and releases, in one way or another, more than one billion of them per month and anywhere from 40 million to 1.2 billion in a single ejaculation. The males of other species boast some equally impressive numbers: 280 million, 1 billion and 3 billion per ejaculate for rabbits, sheep and bulls, respectively. If it only takes one sperm cell to fertilize an egg, though, why produce so many?

The Seminal Wars

The females of many species mate with and receive the sperm of multiple males, often in quick succession. Deep in the lady’s nether regions, those sperm compete to fertilize the egg. Now, if you’re serious about winning a lottery or a raffle, you don’t buy just one ticket do you? No, you buy several to increase your probability of winning. Sperm, in a way, are a lot like lottery tickets. If you’re serious about passing on your genes, then you want to get as many sperm as possible near a fertile egg cell. (In other ways, they’re not like lottery tickets at all, and I would discourage you from trying to buy them in gas stations or convenience stores.) For a male, the more of his sperm going up against his rivals’ seed, the merrier.

Sperm competition is such a powerful selective pressure, in fact, that it influences the size of the testes and the volume of ejaculate of some animals and causes others to modulate the amount of sperm they produce based on the presence of a rival male. Male chimpanzees, who face high levels of sperm competition, possess the largest testes among the great apes. Gorillas, who face almost no sperm competition thanks to a rigid social structure where the dominant male alone gets to mate with all the females, don’t need to waste precious energy and resources on sperm production and hence have some downright dinky testes—almost 15 times smaller than chimps’ (relative to their body weight).

Male humans would feel somewhat embarrassed if they were naked in a locker room full of chimps, but still pretty good about themselves if they were naked and surrounded by silverbacks (nervous, too, perhaps). Evolutionary biologists are still trying to work out whether our relatively large testes are leftovers from some point in our evolutionary past, or if sperm competition was at one point an important factor in human reproduction.

It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon

Sperm competition isn’t a prevalent problem among modern Homo sapiens and guys don’t really need a veritable army of sperm to race someone else’s genes to an egg. We still need an awful lot of those squiggly little cells, though, because even if there’s no other sperm to compete against, every man’s little swimmers still have to fight in a battle of the sexes. Females demand only the finest sperm for their eggs, and the war their bodies wage on sperm is one of attrition.

After insemination, the sperm cells of humans, and many other species, have a long trip ahead of them, relative to their tiny size. At every step of the way, many sperm cells run out of energy or die and their surviving brothers are forced to leave them behind: only a portion of the sperm that are deposited into the vagina make it to the uterus, an even smaller group get to the oviducts and a fraction of those make their way to the upper oviduct where the egg is actually located. Once the sperm reach the egg, things don’t get any easier. One does not simply walk into Mordor. The egg is covered by a thick layer of gelatinous, follicular cells called the cumulus oophorus, which acts as a barrier, and it often takes the assault of several sperm cells to break it down enough for one lucky one to get through and fertilize the egg. Charles Lindemann, who researches the mechanisms of sperm motility at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, likens the whole ordeal to a “marathon run in a maze filled with mucus followed by an obstacle course.”

The odds stacked against any single sperm cell making the grueling journey to the egg can be offset by producing a large number of sperm. While just a small fraction of the sperm will reach their destination and do the job they were made to do, having a few million more cells backing them up makes for a pretty good reproductive insurance policy.

15 Curious Facts About Sherlock Holmes

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sprightly, riveting exploration of Sherlock Holmes—and the character’s thriving, eccentric subculture. Zach Dundas, the book’s author, reveals that the frenzy surrounding Sherlock isn’t strictly a Benedict Cumberbatch-related phenomenon. The master of Baker Street, who was born on January 6, 1854, has always inspired fanatical devotion and feverish anticipation. Here are 15 details about literature's greatest detective, as revealed in The Great Detective.

1. There is a Sherlock Holmes equivalent of Trekkies.

Holmes Lashed Furiously', 1892. Illustration from 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' by Arthur Conan Doyle. From The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly - Vol. III. January to June, edited by George Newnes
The Print Collector/Getty Images

There are as many as 300 societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Devotees of the detective call themselves Sherlockians or Holmesians. There is some division in their ranks as to how the terms should be applied, though generally speaking, American fans are Sherlockians and British fans are Holmesians.

2. Sherlock Holmes societies are a kind of literary United Nations.

Perhaps the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society is the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only organization that was originally named for Holmes’s intelligence network of homeless children. Other clubs include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Great Herd Bisons of the Fertile Plains, and the Seventeen Steppes of Kyrgyzstan. There are also trade-specific Sherlock societies for such groups as poets, psychologists, and mathematicians (“the last named for Moriarty, of course,” Zach Dundas writes).

3. Sherlock Holmes’s influence was vast among elite writers.

T.S. Eliot said, “Every writer owes something to Holmes.” John Le Carre described the short stories as “a kind of narrative perfection.” Dorothy Sayers even wrote a treatise on Watson’s name, attempting to work out how it changed from John H. Watson to James in a later story. She eventually speculated that the middle initial H is short for Hamish, the Scottish form of James. (This is the convention used in the television series Sherlock.)

4. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe.

Detective fiction was still in its infancy when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. Edgar Allan Poe introduced to the genre the concept of a single detective whose cases span several stories. Later, Wilkie Collins elevated the genre with his serials. Conan Doyle brought together the forms of the genre, elevated it with his prose and pacing, and modernized it by having his protagonist use science as part of his investigation. The first character in fiction to use a magnifying glass to help solve a case? You guessed it.

5. The proto-Sherlock Holmes was a doctor ...

When Conan Doyle began sketching out the character, he thought back to his medical school days and recalled a professor with an astonishing eye for detail. Dr. Joseph Bell was known to make accurate diagnoses of his patients from such details as patterns of wear on trousers, bearing, and general disposition. “All careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case,” Bell explained. How stunning was the Bell-Holmes resemblance? Upon reading a Sherlock Holmes story, Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow student of University of Edinburgh, wrote Conan Doyle a letter complimenting the character and his adventures, and asking in closing, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

6. ... Or maybe Sherlock Holmes wasn't a doctor.

The “St. Luke Mystery,” a sensational, real-life case in 1881 in which a London baker disappeared, might have in some way inspired Conan Doyle. A German named Walter Scherer was brought on to help investigate the incident. He described himself as a professional “consulting detective”—hardly a commonplace professional description, and the same one that would eventually describe the man working from 221B Baker Street. Some, most notably author Michael Harrison, argue that Scherer, not Bell, was the model for Sherlock Holmes.

7. Arthur Conan Doyle popularized a new storytelling format.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson looking through mementos
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

When Conan Doyle wrote his short stories, he recognized that serial narratives were falling out of favor with readers—it was too easy to miss one issue and thus lose one’s place in a continuing story. For his Sherlock Holmes stories, he developed a format in which the characters and general circumstances would remain the same, but each story would be standalone and able to be read in any order.

8. Sherlock Holmes was the original success kid.

Long before we took to Twitter to write, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes,” the detective was a viral sensation. One year after publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first Holmes short story, some magazines were already parodying the character, some were publishing thinly-disguised rip-offs, and theatrical companies were performing the character in unauthorized stage productions.

9. The hunt for 221B Baker Street is ongoing.

Part of the allure and longevity of the Sherlock Holmes short stories are their settings. Holmes’s London is real and thriving, and the places in which he has his adventures are real places. His apartment, 221B Baker Street, however, is fogged in mystery. When the stories were written, Baker Street addresses did not go as high as 221, and Conan Doyle refused to divulge the building’s inspiration. For nearly a century, scholars have worked hard to uncover it, going so far as to subject the numbers mentioned in the Holmes texts to Voynich-Manuscript-level scrutiny, and even mapping the backyards of Baker Street, comparing them to details mentioned in the text.

10. Sherlock Holmes's cases are not true crime stories.

Conan Doyle’s historical novels were meticulously researched. As The Great Detective notes, to get the details correct, the author might read “hundreds of volumes on, say, English archery, or Napoleon.” The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, were dashed out as quickly as four in two weeks. In “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for example, Holmes determines that the murderer controls a snake with a whistle and a bowl of milk. As Zach Dundas writes, “snakes can’t hear and don’t drink milk. Does anyone care?”

11. Arthur Conan Doyle was on a nature hike when he decided how Sherlock Holmes would die.

The death of Sherlock Holmes, 1893. Scene from The Adventure of the Final Problem, illustrated by Sidney E Paget, the first artist to draw Sherlock Holmes
The Print Collector/Getty Images

The fabulous success of Sherlock Holmes might eventually have become a bit too much for Conan Doyle, and to get on with his life he eventually resolved to kill off the detective. Just about everyone begged him not to, from his mother to his publisher, but his mind was set on it. He only needed a death suitable for his icon. While vacationing in Switzerland, he and a group of friends went hiking. When they came upon Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle decided that it was a fitting grave for Sherlock Holmes.

12. But the great detective wasn’t done yet.

At the time of Holmes’s untimely death, Conan Doyle was a wealthy man and a fixture of society. Years later, his spending began outpacing the growth of his income, and returning to Sherlock Holmes became an appealing option. Rather than raise the detective from the dead, he authorized a stage production based on Holmes. In 1901, Strand magazine began serializing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes novel written by Conan Doyle. (To get around the thorny problem of Holmes having plummeted down Reichenbach Falls, the novel was set in a time previous to that story.) In 1903, Collier’s Weekly made Conan Doyle an offer: $1.3 million (in 2015 money) for a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s response, by postcard: “Very well.”

13. Arthur Conan Doyle: father to Sherlock Holmes—and peer?

During his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle did a little bit of everything, from transforming literature to running for Parliament to playing competitive sports. But Conan Doyle has had a post-death nearly as active as his life. Sherlock Holmes lives on, of course, but Conan Doyle has also become a compelling character in fiction. On the page, stage, and screen, the author can be found solving crimes that no one else can.

14. Arthur Conan Doyle's sanity was questioned.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Toward the end of his life, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism and invested considerable capital, both personal and financial, in spreading the message. He frequented psychics and mediums, held séances, and argued the existence of fairies, defending even the worst photographic forgeries of the winged sprites. One headline at the time summed up the situation, asking if the author was “hopelessly crazy.”

15. Sherlock Holmes was first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Though Conan Doyle couldn’t conceive of Sherlock Holmes in a world post-World-War-I, the great detective saw quite a bit of action during World War II. As noted in The Great Detective, Holmes appeared in British propaganda videos; one of his stories was required reading for soldiers in the Soviet army; Britain’s wartime spy agency set up shop on Baker Street and called themselves the “Baker Street Irregulars”; and one of the two films found in Hitler’s bunker was The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Headless Torso Found in Idaho Cave 40 Years Ago Confirmed to Be Missing Murderer

senata, iStock via Getty Images
senata, iStock via Getty Images

A new wrinkle has been added to a 40-year-old murder mystery. As The Guardian reports, a headless torso found in an Idaho cave in 1979 has been identified as the remains of Joseph Henry Loveless. Loveless was an escaped convict who murdered his wife in 1916, but the identity of his killer remains unknown.

The body was discovered by a family looking for arrowheads in Buffalo Cave in Clark County, Idaho, on August 26, 1979. The dismembered torso was wrapped in a burlap sack and dressed in dark pants, a pinstriped shirt, and a maroon sweater. It had been buried in a shallow grave 18 inches deep.

The case stayed cold until 1991, when a girl found a mummified hand in the same cave system. Authorities later uncovered an arm and two legs—all wrapped in burlap—in the area. Crime and anthropology experts from Idaho State University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the FBI were called to aid in the investigation, but with no head to match the body, their work sputtered.

At the end of 2019, the case saw its first major breakthrough. Earlier that year, Idaho State University and the Clark County police had reached out to the DNA Doe Project—a nonprofit that uses forensic genealogy to identify remains—for its expertise. By building a genealogical tree and digging up historical records, they were able to connect the body to Joseph Henry Loveless, a descendent of Mormon pioneers and a felon who was last seen escaping from jail in 1916.

Loveless used an ax to murder his second wife, Agnes Octavia Caldwell Loveless, on May 5, 1916. By that time, he had already been arrested twice for bootlegging and had escaped imprisonment by sawing through his jail bars. The DNA Doe Project reports [PDF] that one of Loveless's children was quoted as saying at his mother Agnes's funeral: "Papa never stayed in jail very long and he'll soon be out."

Loveless slipped out of his jail cell on May 18, 1916, and was never seen alive by authorities again. His wanted poster described him as wearing a red sweater and black trousers—the same clothing found on his body decades later. This leads investigators to believe that he died shortly after escaping jail in 1916.

Clark County authorities contacted the 87-year-old grandson of Joseph Henry Loveless, who now lives in California, and asked for a DNA sample. Their analysis confirmed that the grandson is the direct descendent of the man found in Buffalo Cave. Beyond that, Loveless's living relatives weren't able to provide any leads, as they hadn't been aware of their ancestor's colorful history. For now, the case of the escaped murderer's own grisly death remains open.

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER