Oooh, Mr. spider, you tickle me so!

Manipulative experiments are all the rage in animal sex studies. After all, one of the most coveted research outcomes is direct, experimental evidence that this or that sexual feature has an impact on what biologists call “fitness”, that is, an animal’s sexual success, measured in the currency of number of descendants. It all started off with studies in birds, already several decades ago, where researchers would clip tail feathers of swallows, add dots to the chests of grouse, or even stick colourful hats on finch heads; all in an attempt to see how this would alter their sex-appeal. But in recent years, the trend to doll up (or doll down) your experimental animals has gone micro, with researchers using nano-laser guns to zap off fruit fly hairs, for example.

Before and after: the top row shows male and female Leucauge mariana spiders au naturel; the bottom row shows them after the researchers applied their razors to their faces.

Before and after: the top row shows male and female Leucauge mariana spiders au naturel; the bottom row shows them after the researchers applied their razors to their faces.

In a study appearing ahead of print in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, three spider researchers describe how they shaved the faces of spiders to see how this would affect their sex appeal. And I mean literally shaved: they fashioned miniature razor blades and removed the facial hair from the large jaws of female spiders of the Central American species Leucauge mariana. In these tetragnathid spiders, the couple locks jaws during copulation and while the male transfers his sperm to the female, he moves his jaws in such a way that they tickle the hairs on the female. After mating is over, and if the female has not shooed the male off in mid-mating, she sometimes produces a glue-like substance to cover her vagina with; a sign that she is going to use this particular male’s sperm for fertilizing her eggs and will not entertain any other suitors for a while.

What the researchers found is that this tickling during mating is crucial for the female’s inclination to allow the mating to continue and also for her decision to produce the post-coital sperm plug. A shaved female, who no longer has hairs with which to register the male’s tickling, much more often would interrupt copulation by pushing the male away, or would refuse to apply a sperm plug after mating. Also she would be more inclined to mate with a subsequent male. And shaving off the hairs from the male’s jaws would, by and large, have the same effects, since he no longer has the tools to tickle the female with.

In other words: in Leucauge mariana, a good tickle during sex makes a male irresistible. And he gets the offspring the prove it.

Species spawned by special sperm?

When I wrote Nature’s Nether Regions, I struggled a lot with sperm and ova. Should I include the evolution of sex cells (or “gametes”) in the book or not? In the end, I did so, but only minimally. After all, the evolution of the multitude of shapes and traits, forms and functions of sperm cells and egg cells is a mer à boire just as complex as that of genital organs themselves. All the sexual selection forces that mold the shape of penises and vaginas do their tricks all over again when confronted with the cells that are channelled by these genitals.

A new article in this week’s PLoS Biology gives us a peek into the amazing world of gamete evolution. Janice Ting of the University of Toronto and co-authors studied that workhorse of developmental biologists, the tiny nematode worm Caenorhabditis. They discovered that, when they tried crossing one Caenorhabditis species with another, not ony did they not get any offspring, but also the female would be the worse for wear afterwards: she often died shortly after the deed. As it turned out, this was due to the sperm cells she had received from the other species’ male. Ting and colleagues saw how these had broken out of the uterus and were wreaking havoc with the female’s internal organs.

The reason probably is that that worm species with such rogue sperm was a sexually reproducing one, whose sperm has been continuously evolving to outcompete other males’ sperm (with the female reproductive system keeping up, evolutionarily, by bolstering the organ walls and the like). The species to which the hapless female belonged, however, was a species that mostly reproduced as a hermaphrodite (that is, it is male and female at the same time), by self-fertilizing–in nematodes evolution causes repeated shifts between sexual and hermaphroditic species. Since in such species there is not so much competition among the sperm of different males, these species have not been adapted to withstand the onslaught of aggressive sperm cells.

If true, then this is an interesting new reason why different species often have reproductive barriers: they cannot cross-breed because their female reproductive system cannot cope with the aggressive sperm cells of the other species. In one of my previous books, Frogs, Flies & Dandelions, I describe how female tsetse flies sometimes die after mating with a male from a different part of Africa because their vaginas are simply ripped apart by those males’ genitals. This new worm study again shows how barriers between species may evolve simply because sexual strategies do not keep up with one another.Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.26.25 AM

Unorthodox measures to improve assisted conception

Bill Eberhard has been a prolific and very influential scientist publishing widely on anything to do with sexual evolution. His books Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia and Female Control have been cited by other authors (usually a good proxy for academic impact) thousands of times. But one of his articles has, in the more than twenty years since it was published, received no attention whatsoever. In 1991, he wrote a short paper for the journal Medical Hypotheses in which he argued that artificial insemination effectivity in women could be improved if the pipette used were, well, dildo-shaped and applied with gusto, rather than clinical sobriety. Granted, he does not say it in so many words, but statements like, “the male genitalia of humans perform complex movements and change form during ejaculation. It seems unlikely that such complex and consistent behavior is bereft of reproductive significance” leave little to the imagination. What Eberhard basically says is, if artificial insemination were accompanied with the kind of stimulation that comes with regular intercourse, chances are that it will be more successful.

Eberhard has good reasons to think so. In livestock, assisted pregnancy procedures routinely make use of such erotic aids. Swine insemination uses a boar penis shaped pipette–to good effect. Likewise, lab mice are often artificially inseminated while undergoing simulated mating with a vaginal tampon or an artificial mouse penis. And in rats, bigger litters are produced after artificial insemination if a (small-sized) vibrator is applied to the female during the insemination procedure. All this suggests that the penis and its movements perform an “internal courtship,” which, if it pleases the female, results in her absorbing, storing, and/or using more sperm. And why not give this a try in human assisted conception as well?

More recently, another curious scientific paper shows benefits from a whole different kind of theatre. In a 2011 article in the journal Fertility and Sterility with the intriguing title, “The effect of medical clowning on pregnancy rates after in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer”, a team of Isreali authors show that IVF was 16% more effective in a group of women who had witnessed a medical clown performing shortly after their IVF treatment. As the medical researchers write, “Each patient in [this] group was visited by a professional medical clown immediately after [embryo transfer], while lying in bed. This encounter lasted 12–15 minutes and included a routine developed by the principal investigators (SF and AS) as suitable for such patients. The routine included jokes, tricks, and magic and was performed on a one-to-one basis with the clown dressed as a ‘‘chef de cuisine.’’ The same clown performed the same routine at all visits.” The clown in question was Mr. Shlomi Algussi, who may be seen performing in this video:

We assume the encounters were monitored by the researchers, so that the 16% extra conception rate cannot be due to some unauthorized “tricks” on the part of the clown.

How I Met Isabella Rossellini

It took a little effort, but I resisted the temptation to quip about blue velvet worms when I chatted with Isabella Rossellini last night. The Holland Festival had permitted me, my Dutch publisher, and my son, to spend a little time with her during the after-party following on the Dutch premiere of Bestiaire d’Amour, her stage show inspired on her Green Porno short films (see earlier blog post).



I had read mixed reviews of the show, but was not disappointed. Far from it: it was accurate and up-to-date sexual selection theory presented with Hollywood glamour and slapstick humor thrown in. The biological accuracy is not surprising, since Rossellini is doing a Master’s degree in animal behaviour, which, she told me, she can only work on for a few weeks each summer. She confided that she has an ongoing battle with her manager who tries to get her to go on tours when she should really be taking exams — a problem that not many behavioral biology students face.

I presented her with a copy of Nature’s Nether Regions, as well as its Dutch and Italian translations (the title of the latter, Anche le Coccinelle Nel Loro Piccolo, she translated for lookers-on). She said it was a “very nice book”, and promised to “read it on the plane”.

We were not permitted to take any photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it that you’re now just a mouseclick plus a handshake removed from the Queen of Animal Sex.

Tickets for the 20 and 21 June shows are still available.

Isabella Rossellini and her Green Porno at the Holland Festival

On the first page of Nature’s Nether Regions, I applaud Isabella Rossellini and her Sundance Channel series of “Green Porno” shorts, in which she re-enacts the copulation of many a wild animal. Rossellini is pursuing a master’s degree in animal behavior at Hunter’s College. So no suprise that the short films are accurate, uninhibited, and a perfect illustration of the diversity of reproduction in nature. That’s why I am so thrilled that the stage version of Green Porno, titled, for the European tour, Bestiaire d’Amour, will be coming to Amsterdam this month. As an event in the Holland Festival, the show will be performed three times, on June 19th, 20th, and 21st at the Stadsschouwburg. Here is one of the Green Porno videos, excerpts of which form part of Bestiaire d’Amour.

Tickets for the show may be ordered via the Holland Festival site.