It’s been a long, grueling bitterly, cold winter in the Northeast, but at long last there are tiny hints that spring’s more clement weather is on the horizon. And with these signals, nature turns its attention to this:
How very apropos that my second post of the series, “ALL CREATURES BIG AND SMALL” is all about the dance of love which can take some very unusual and creative directions as both flora and fauna fight for their right to find the perfect mate. The American Museum of Natural History’s exhibit, “Life at its Limits.” which officially opened on April 4 devoted an entire section to this amazing phenomena – let me share with you my favorites. No matter what the species, it’s all about being the best, the biggest, most colorful, most inventive, the loudest, most limber, even the smelliest to attract a partner. Some of these presentations are one-sided – a flamboyant male strutting his stuff to impress his lady, but a rare few actually are a beautiful duet of two souls synchronizing their passion. One of the most beautiful examples of this is the dance de L’Amour of the freshwater diving birds known as Grebes. There is little explanation needed for this touching and intimate pas de deux (I don’t usually quote so many French phrases but I may be swayed by today’s subject matter).
GREBES – Not only do these birds move in perfect mimicry, seemingly synching up with each other’s souls, they practically defy gravity in a soaring dance climax – watch the video to the very end:
BOWER BIRD – The male Bower Bird has to work feverishly on his own to attract a female – but his homemaking skills are sure to put a female in a romantic mood – not only does he construct a love nest – he even decorates it!
The male Bower Bird’s talents don’t end with building. He entices potential lovers with colorful trinkets and then to seal the deal, seduces his intended mate with a very slow erotic dance, literally putting the female into a trance. However, this multi leveled seduction is not fool-proof. A misstep can be disastrous:
Visual allure is not the only method nature employs in alluring a mate – scent can play a pivotal role for many species. The first example is the Saturniid moth.
SATURNIID MOTHS – For this beautifully designed moth, it’s all about the chase and the conquest, so much so that the adults of the species have no mouths for eating. In addition,their lifespan is just a scant few days – so hookups have to be made quickly.
The males do have enormous feathery antennae that are used to follow an aroma trail left by the females, and these persistent males will continue to hunt for miles to find their mate.
One can understand their drive, given they have one shining short moment to, as Shakespeare wrote: “…die bravely, like a smug bridegroom.” (Lear, iv vi 201).
ORCHID BEES – In a role reversal, the female is the pursuer and the male bee is the scent tracker – however the orchid bee takes it one step further by actually manufacturing its own perfume. These bees can have brilliant blue and green metallic bodies and the males come equipped with extraordinarily long tongues ( I will forgo the obvious path here). The males don’t sip nectar from any old flower; they are quite particular, passing up some blooms and traveling for miles and miles until, like an expert perfumer they find their perfect mix of nectars to create their signature scent which they store in special chambers in their enlarged back legs, waiting for a female to sniff and select.
The Roman poet Lucretius once wrote: “What is one’s man’s meat is another man’s poison.” This is a perfect phrase for this next example of a species, this time a plant’s use of scent attraction.
AMORPHOPHALLUS TITANUM – The translation from its greek name is “giant, misshapen phallus, which as you can see below, is an apt description:
This tropical plant is very rare and was discovered in 1878 in Sumatra, Indonesia. Unlike animals, this plant has to attract another species in its quest to reproduce by means of pollination, and so the Amorphophallus Titanum produces an odor resembling rotting flesh (actually sulphur-containing compounds) to attract, bees, beetles and other flies attracted to carrion smells. This is especially important as this plant does not have petals used by other flowers to attract pollinators. This plant has another helpful adaptation. There are two main parts: the outer purple vase-like sheath is call the spathe, which protects the inside part called the spadix. The “female” flowers are on the bottom of the spadix and are red and open first. The male flowers are on the top of the spadix and open later. This timing prevents the plant from pollinating itself. In addition, since pollinators tend to start at the bottom and work their way up a plant, they pick up the pollen and then fly to another Titanum starting at the bottom and thereby cross-fertilizing the new plant. Efficient, but definitely not fragrant.
The last selection is my favorite in this category as it has a wonderfully surprising talent.
PEACOCK SPIDER – “It’s all about the base.” This tiny little guy, less than .3 of an inch, packs a lot of swagger. These spiders are very venomous but even though they can prey upon creatures 3 or 4 times their size, stalking them like a miniature lion, their jaws are so small they couldn’t puncture through a human’s skin. Whew!
The male Peacock Spider lives on the edge. Each male has its own customized dance moves, but there’s a lethal catch. If a female doesn’t like the male’s choreography, she doesn’t just reject him – she EATS him! So this little guy is not only dancing for sex but also literally dancing for his life.
Watch this Peacock Spider twerk it!