Mating Madness in the Springtime

It is a little disconcerting how much sex ospreys have. I’m not a prude but really, they get in a lot of action during a very short period of time. In one study, osprey pairs averaged 288 couplings in a 45-day period for each clutch of eggs produced. That’s a whole lotta love!

I’m not a voyeur either, but it is my job to watch wildlife. Even if it wasn’t, it’s hard to resist the urge to be a Peeping Tom in Mother Nature’s window, as wildlife sometimes leads a pretty wild life.

Now is the time of year to see the miracles of mating, and if you are observant, you can see nature’s sexual spectacles all around you. Love is literally in the air, and in the trees, and on the ground. It isn’t just the ospreys – or the birds and the bees, as they say – with passionate proclivities and limitless libidos.

Consider the lowly barnacle, which was described by naturalist Louis Agassiz as “nothing more than a little shrimp-like animal standing on its head in a limestone house kicking food into its mouth.” Barnacles have the last laugh (or would, if their mouths weren’t full of food), since they have bragging rights over all of the male animals of the world. Barnacles are exceptionally well-endowed, having a sex organ that is eight times the length of their bodies.

For other creatures, danger lurks in finding love. Some species of male spiders, already at a disadvantage due to their poor eyesight, have to watch out for their women. The female spider has no sympathy or need for her lover once she has her way with him. After copulation, if he doesn’t leave quickly, she is likely to eat him. We’ve all heard of black widows, and they’re not limited to spider species. The female praying mantis similarly munches her mate’s head during the sex act, and yet he can continue with the act heedless and headless. Brain power is clearly not necessary.

How long love lasts certainly does vary. The aforementioned ospreys may have lots of sex, but their lust lasts less than ten seconds. Quickies are the norm for many other beasts as well. Mosquito sex takes only a few seconds. On the other hand, there are those examples to be envious or afraid of: Bush crickets mate for fifty minutes, and one species of dragonfly can be in coitus for up to two days.

Of course, all of this sex leads to babies – and babies by many names. We humans have invented an abundance of names for the abundance of different kinds of animal newborns. Some of the more obscure and interesting ones include: spat (oyster), elver (eel), cria (llama), pluteus (sea urchin), neonate (snake), cosset (sheep), cygnet or flapper (swan), whelp (tiger), puggle (platypus), wiggler (mosquito), and pinkie (mouse).

We know that humans generally produce offspring from a single egg. Other animals are much more fecund. At one sitting (so to speak), a viper produces twelve eggs, a frog fifteen hundred eggs, cod about five million eggs, and a single female mussel produces fifteen million eggs per spawn. Equally astounding is the collaborative power of procreation for the world’s rats: Every hour the population of rats increases by eight thousand individuals.

Finding your one true love can be difficult whether you are man, woman, or beast. It sometimes isn’t even necessary either. Those ospreys we’ve been discussing are more partial to location, not necessarily to a lover, although they will mate for life as long as their partner returns to the same nest site. Salamanders prefer to mix and match their mates on one big night in April. This salamander orgy occurs in a vernal pool that can contains hundreds of individuals, called a congress.

Graham Swift once wrote: “All nature’s creatures join to express nature’s purpose. Somewhere in their mounting and mating, rutting and butting is the very secret of nature itself.” Too true. The reason that nature’s sex habits and oddities are irresistibly and endlessly fascinating to us is the very fact that they do hold, somehow, the secret of nature. Without this secret coming into play in all its myriad ways, the resulting world would be as barren and sterile as the moon.

And without that exciting flurry of springtime activity, ospreys would have much less to look forward to – though they might have more energy come summertime.