Sex show goes beyond the birds and the bees
by Matthew S. Bajko
A new "Animal Attraction" exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences opens this weekend. Timed to Valentine's Day, museum officials promise visitors will "discover how the birds, bees (and fish!) actually do it."
Whether it will spark romantic urges in the human guests is another matter. It is more likely visitors will be creeped out rather than cooing once they encounter the creatures in the new 18-tank aquarium gallery.
Some of the animals and their bizarre mating rituals and reproductive strategies being highlighted in the new show are cannibalistic praying mantises, parasitic anglerfish, and emperor scorpions.
"It is all about the diversity of life and how life keeps strategizing to keep life going. We learn about the birds and the bees but that is only a small slice of what is going on out there," said Eric Hupperts, a biologist with the science institution located in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "As far as families and children, these are important lessons we all need to learn. The more we do, the more open-minded we can be about all sorts of other things."
Hupperts, 32, who is gay, is one of several out academy staffers who helped select the different animals to include in the show. He picked banana slugs, known scientifically as Ariolimax californicus. Not exactly a cuddly or cute choice.
"They are way cooler than people think," argued Hupperts, who received special permission from state wildlife officials to collect eight slugs from the Santa Cruz Mountains for the show. "They are huge, 10-inch-long, yellow things chilling in the forest."
They are symbolic creatures of the state's Redwoods and serve as the UC Santa Cruz mascot. At one time considered for official designation as state mollusk, the air-breathing land slugs also have a "strange sexual reproductive strategy," noted Hupperts.
"They're simultaneous hermaphrodites. They have both female and male parts at the same time," he explained. "It means any other slug they encounter in the Redwoods is a potential mate. They both exchange DNA and deliver semen to the other back and forth."
At times the mating slugs, which will wrap their penis around one another, may have to resort to what scientists call apophallation.
"Sometimes they get stuck and can't pull out completely. The way they deal with that is to chew it off," said Hupperts.
This is the first special exhibition Hupperts, who grew up in Switzerland and Minnesota, has been involved with since being hired on at the academy several years ago. It also marks the first time the facility has kept banana slugs as part of its living collection.
Hupperts used ferns, moss and Redwood bark to make the slugs feel at home. Chilled water running through the tank and misters keep them moist and cool.
"I tried to recreate a slice of the Redwood forest for them," he said. "The challenge was to set it up so they are visible and not just hiding all the time."
Another out biologist, Nicole Chaney, chose two types of insects for the show and one arachnid. Beetle specimens are meant to educate visitors about sexual dimorphism. The phenomenon refers to when males and females of a species do not look identical.
The others are live displays of an emperor scorpion and the praying mantis. The male scorpion engages in courtship dances to lure a female mate, which will carry her young on her back until their first molt.
The mantis represents the practice of sexual cannibalism. Females have a tendency to devour their male sexual partners either during or after copulation.
There is no guarantee that any of the animals on display will provide live demonstrations of the various sexual strategies they are meant to help explain. Visitors may be lucky enough to catch the live hatching of a brownbanded bamboo shark egg case.
According to Hupperts, a female shark in the academy's Steinhart Aquarium has been laying the egg cases despite having never been introduced to a male version of her species. Several of her egg cases, which contain a single baby shark, are part of the exhibit.
"It reproduced asexually," he said. "The egg cases are hanging there and backlit so you can see them moving around. One of them already hatched last week. It broke out of its egg case. It is doing great."
The show does not include any overt mentions of homosexual behaviors in the animal kingdom. The reason being, said Hupperts, is that despite the title of the show it is not so much focused on attraction among animals but on how they reproduce offspring.
"There is nothing specific about LGBT stuff, but there are a lot of interesting and different out-of-the box strategies for reproduction," said Hupperts. "Life evolves around passing our genes on. Animals have many different techniques to do that and produce offspring."
The new exhibit opens to the public Saturday, February 11. For more information about the academy, visit http://www.calacademy.org/.