“Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.”
Easier sung than done, Cole Porter. There’s the hook up, the breakup, the makeup sex, le marriage, le divorce, the kids, who gets custody of the dog, the remarriage, the blended family, the sandwich generation, the grandparents moving in, the grown kids moving back. Oy vey.
You think you’ve got problems? They’re nothing compared with the animal kingdom where the laws of attraction, mating and bonding are as infinite as the creatures of land, sea and air.
Forget the clichés: Males are bigger than females, more beautiful and more aggressive. Females are loving mamas. And everyone’s hot to trot. (We’re talking critters here.)
It “ain’t necessarily so.” (Right, Ira Gershwin?)
Take your giant pandas, for instance. Everyone loves pandas. But when it comes to nooky, they’re hardly Brangelina. Indeed, they seem to be more interested in eating bamboo.
Call it the trade-off to captivity. Sure, you have your three squares, your treats, your adoring fans. But with everyone watching in close quarters and no call of the wild, well, it’s hard to get your groove on.
“If deprived of the opportunity to watch sex happening, some animals never figure it out,” says Jack Schneider, curator of the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.
There you have it – the need for panda porn.
When it comes to sex – in the animal kingdom – Jack knows jack. So does Peter Linderoth, who used to work at the Maritime Aquarium and is now manager of the Seaside Center and outreach education at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. And what they know is that for everything you think you know about animals, there’s an exception or two. (Or three or four or more.)
Sure, males tend to be bigger and showier – more beautiful, if you will – to attract the female. That’s where the animal magnetism, a term you rarely hear applied to females, comes in. Jack points to the male oyster toadfish, native to the Long Island Sound, which likes to stake out its territory in our salt marshes and then warn other males to keep out while it invites the lady oyster toadfish into its marshy man cave. And how does the male announce that he’s open for love business? By emitting a sound that clocks in at 100 decibels. That’s akin to the A train, and we don’t mean Duke Ellington. That must really set feminine hearts aflutter.
Not to be outdone in the male notice-me sweepstakes, the superb bird of paradise – that’s its name, not a compliment – clears an area and starts dancing, jumping and clicking its tail on the ground, Peter says:
“It’s sort of a mating ritual and a Las Vegas show. It’s wild.”
Then there’s the lumpfish. The females are much bigger than the males, Jack says. But the males, colored cream to green, light up brick-red when they’re ready for amore.
The lumpfish is just one species in which the female is larger than the male, owing, no doubt, to her greater reproductive role. Peter mentions the deep sea anglerfish, found in the ocean’s midnight zone (3,000 to 13,000 feet deep). The female, which is pretty large, releases chemicals and the male, only 1/10 of her size, latches on to her, bites her and fuses with her to such an extent that he shares her blood. In this manner, several males may attach themselves to one female.
So in other words, the guy is really a vampire who gloms on to her and whose sole contribution is to get her pregnant.
Ladies, let’s not go there.
Of (not-so) human bondage
So what’s all this bellowing and blushing and strutting and glomming on about? It’s about sex and bonding. Or maybe sex and bondage.
For the romantics, you’ve got your swans – “Swans are very romantic,” Peter says. You’ve got your penguins.
“I’ve heard they mate for life,” says Jack, whose Maritime Aquarium has a show “African Penguins” through April 21. “And once a mate disappears, they find another mate.” ’Cause, as the song says, “love is lovelier the second time around,” you know?
Penguins will have one or two chicks at a time and try to raise both. Not only will they go back to the same breeding beach, but they’ll go back to the same spot, sort of like the couple who return to the honeymoon suite for subsequent anniversaries.
So penguins, somewhat sentimental. Sharks? Not so much. The Aquarium is home to some sand tiger sharks, which inhabit the Long Island Sound and can grow up to 8 or 9 feet long, weighing between 250 and 300 pounds. They dine on fish, not humans, and while they mate in captivity, they do not breed. (What, they don’t like the schools here?)
Maybe they’re too traumatized by the sex act. The male grasps the receptive female by the pectoral fin and inserts his clasper and….Well, you get the idea. Needless to say, they have sharp teeth, resulting in tears on the skin during sex.
Sand tiger sharks are also called gray nurse sharks. So perhaps we should call this “fifty shades of gray nurse shark.”
The female gray nurse will carry several embryos in her womb but give birth only to one or two baby sharks. That’s because as one becomes dominant in utero it will eat the others. Lovely.
Moving on to sea horses, Jack reveals a gender-bending reproductive story in which the male sea horse nurtures the female’s fertilized eggs in his pouch. As the eggs hatch, the male contracts his body and pushes the little sea horses – there can be hundreds of them – into a watery world without so much as a “write when you get work.”
Says Jack, “They can’t come back and live in the basement.”
So males can be quite maternal as well as traditionally heroic, as when the male mallard duck uses his green coloring to attract the predatory fox away from the female and her eggs or ducklings. Reminded that male mallards are also well-known for forcing themselves on their female counterparts, Jack counters with the female praying mantis, who bites her lover’s head off after sex. Yep.
Love hurts. Nature is cruel. Or so it seems. Jack tells the story of what happened to the Aquarium’s meerkats during Hurricane Sandy. Meerkats are famously clannish, as demonstrated on the series “Meerkat Manor,” the “Downton Abbey” of Animal Planet. The nonbreeding siblings who call the Aquarium home had to be evacuated in separate cages to a temporary location, a dicey move since a separation of more than a half-hour will lead them to forget family ties and turn on one another. Their careful reintroduction proved successful but not without some squabbling at first.
Bad behavior? Or nature just being nature?
“We anthropomorphize nature,” Peter says. “It’s easy for people to say one animal looks sad or another looks happy.”
But what we perceive to be nature’s beauty or brutality is just nature being itself. Whereas we can be judged for our actions, he says, “because we have free will.”
Catch “Chinasaurs: Dinosaur Discoveries From China” (through April 21) and “The Lure of the Ocean: The Art of Stanley Meltzoff” (through June 2) at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. For more call (203) 869-0376 or visit brucemuseum.org. “African Penguins” is on view through April 21 at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, where you can also see sand tiger sharks and meerkats, among other critters. For more, call (203) 852-0700 or visit maritimeaquarium.org.