10 Surprising Facts About Animal Sex

iStock/Dias Studio
iStock/Dias Studio

Homo sapiens do not have a monopoly on strange sex. Peculiar mating rituals are prevalent throughout the animal kingdom. While writing my book Sex Weird-o-Pedia, these were the 10 most interesting animal sex facts I came across.

1. Turtle mating sounds make for good special effects.

It turns out that animal mating sounds can be really useful for capturing people’s attention. When the filmmakers of Jurassic Park wanted to create velociraptor sounds, they used recordings of tortoises getting it on.

2. Sharks have versatile birthing methods.

Rare close-up encounter with wild endangered species Zebra Leopard Shark (Stegostoma fasciatum
iStock/Placebo365

Australian scientists claim to have found a shark that gives virgin births. They studied a female zebra shark named Leonie, who laid eggs despite not being around a male shark in three years. Several years before her virgin birth, Leonie gave birth after mating with a male shark. She is believed to be the first known shark to reproduce both sexually and asexually.

3. Worms have really long dry spells.

You think it's been a long time since you've been intimate with someone? You've got nothing on worms. After sequencing the DNA of asexual translucent worms, NYU researchers discovered that one species, Diploscapter pachys, had not had sex for about 18 million years. This makes Diploscapter pachys one of the oldest known asexual species.

4. Fine fragrances turn big cats on.

Calvin Klein colognes have sex appeal to animals, too. Captive tigers and jaguars have become stimulated by the brand’s Obsession for Men scent. Forest rangers have used the scent to lure tigers out of the wild.

5. Barnacles have adaptable penises.

A close-up of barnacles on a rock
iStock/Photoshopped

Barnacles may have the most interesting penises in the animal kingdom. Their penises can stretch up to eight times the length of their body. And while many species' manhoods can change size, few can alter their shape. But researchers in Alberta found that barnacles that live in gentle waters have long and thin penises that are good for reach, while those in rough waters have short and wider penises that are better for holding off strong waves. The researchers then transported rough water barnacles to calmer waters and vice versa and found that after getting moved around, the barnacles adjusted their penis's shape to better fit their environment.

6. Water bugs mate loudly.

The water bug species Micronecta scholtzi are the loudest animal in the world relative to their size. The tiny critter reaches nearly 100 decibels when it rubs its penis against its abdomen. Basically, there is a rock concert going on whenever this bug releases a mating call.

7. Ducks defend themselves with their vaginas.

Duck penises can be terrifying: They are long and corkscrew-shaped and they can be used like a lasso to pull in females who are trying to escape unwanted advances. To fend off unwelcome mating attempts from overeager males, female ducks have evolved vaginas that twist in the opposite direction of their male counterparts’s corkscrew penises. Discover magazine referred to duck vaginas as “organic chastity belts."

8. Most birds don’t have penises.

Close-up of an ostrich
iStock/sasapanchenko

Just 3 percent of bird species have penises. Ostriches and ducks have them, but eagles and penguins do not. When birds get erections, their penises fill up with lymph fluid instead of blood. Birds without penises transfer sperm from male to female via what is known as a cloacal kiss.

9. Male birds are desperate to impress potential mates.

As long as humans have been on Earth, guys have done incredibly stupid things to try to impress women. Male birds are not immune to this dynamic.

Little birds like chickadees will group together to take on larger predators. It has generally been assumed that they do this for protection purposes, but researchers in Brazil came to a different conclusion: The researchers created a few fake owls, one from a species that regularly eats smaller birds and another from a less threatening owl species. They found that across 79 different species of small birds, the less threatening owl was attacked more often by the smaller birds. Their conclusion was that the small birds used the weaker opponent as an opportunity to showcase their defense skills to potential mates.

10. Unlike humans, animals have gotten frisky in space.

According to NASA, no humans have ever had sex in space. But other animal species have been more active with their sexuality and reproductivity outside our atmosphere.

The first pregnant mammals to fly in outer space aboard a U.S. spacecraft were rats, and frogs have conceived in orbit.

In an effort to better understand how reproduction works in the absence of gravity, Russia’s space agency launched five geckos into orbit in 2014 so that they could observe how the lizards had sex in space. Sadly, the geckos froze to death before they touched back down to Earth.

In 2018, NASA scientists began a mission that involved sending human and bull sperm to outer space. Their intention was to study how microgravity affects the motility of sperm cells. Because if humans are to ever colonize space, we must boldly bone where no one has boned before.

Ross Benes is the author of the new book Sex Weird-o-Pedia: The Ultimate Book of Shocking, Scandalous, and Incredibly Bizarre Sex Facts.

What's That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

NCHANT/iStock via Getty Images
NCHANT/iStock via Getty Images

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get a hen's attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen.

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

Dudes and their snoods

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

In the snood for love

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

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Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

iStock/Spondylolithesis
iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

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