Mating Games


words by willow defebaugh

photograph by arianna Lago

As humans attempt to redefine love and sex in the modern world, The Overview looks to the many diverse forms mating can take in nature.

“Love is at once an affirmation and a transcendence of who we are.”

Esther Perel

On Sunday night, I found myself at dinner having a conversation about the trials and tribulations of modern day dating and relationships. It seems that most social conversations tend to go this way lately: debating the merits of monogamy, wondering which couple is getting married next, who is sexually fulfilled. Maybe it’s our biological fixation on coupling, or our species struggling to adapt centuries-old cultural traditions to life today—rituals that are noticeably narrow in comparison to the sprawling diversity of mating behaviors observed in the natural world.


Just as humans go to great lengths to attract partners, other animals demonstrate arresting displays of courtship. Male birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae) show off their bright feathers in elaborate dances that can last for hours, all to catch the eye of a female. Male bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae) are even more artful in their approach, architecting elaborate structures called bowers which they decorate with flowers and other objects. In some cases, they will even arrange these objects in a way that distorts the female’s perception in order to make him appear larger and therefore a more attractive candidate. Who hasn’t been led on by a date?


While some mating behaviors are beautiful, others are gruesome. One would assume the lightless abyss of the ocean would be lonely, but in the darkness, anglerfishLophiiformes, with their lantern-like lures and terrifying teeth—bonds like no other. Rather than repeatedly having to find other fish in the sea, when a male happens upon a female, he latches onto her with his teeth and over time fuses with her, joining their skin and bloodstreams and losing all his organs save the reproductive ones which continue to fertilize the female. And then there are praying mantises (Mantodea), the females of which are known to eat the heads of male partners during sex.


Monogamy is rare, found in only three to five percent of mammals—and even then, it varies greatly. Gray wolves (Canis lupus) take the power couple concept to an extreme, with each pack having only one monogamous alpha pair allowed to breed. For European beavers (Castor fiber), bonding for life is an act of survival; because they need so much bark to sustain themselves, couples can split the workload of felling trees for food. Gibbons (Hylobatidae) may be monogamous, but they are also known to break up and find new partners. One way they stay together? By developing a signature duet that they sing to keep eachother from straying.


Polygamy, on the other hand, can be found far more frequently. Prides of lions (Panthera leo) typically consist of many females and a few males; the females will go into heat at the same time, and mate with different partners every few hours over the period of days. Female red junglefowls (Gallus gallus) will mate with many males and then decide, after the fact, which sperm she will allow to fertilize her eggs. And in hives of honeybees (Apis mellifera), a female queen will mate with as many as 40 drones per mating flight, creating the next generation.


Sex has many other forms that challenge human norms. A number of animals aside from us have sex for pleasure, such as dolphins (Odontoceti) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) who use it to reinforce social bonds and relieve conflict with every sexual act and partner imaginable. Homosexuality is also common in nature: chimpanzees, gorillas, penguins, bighorn sheep, Laysan albatrosses, flour beetles, and more species display it. Meanwhile, land snails (Stylommatophora) are hermaphrodites that impregnate each other while mating, and male seahorses (Hippocampus) give birth. And many fish, insects, and reptiles reproduce asexually.


I’m not one to give advice on relationships, in all their diverse shapes and configurations. But I do know this: they can be beautiful and they can be brutal. They can be lifelong commitments and celebrations of limitless love. They can be carnal acts of pleasure and they can queer our outdated notions of what it means to join our lives with those of others. They can be messy and complex, especially in the case of humans where identities and evolving needs are involved. They ask us to both choose and rise above ourselves, again and again and again.

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