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In The Country

Amorous Animals

Tim Iverson

(2/2017) February is synonymous with love. With Valentineís Day fast approaching we humans will be putting the final touches on gifts or planning out thoughtful romantic gestures, if weíve been diligent. Perhaps youíre not as forward thinking, and youíll scramble at the last second to pick up a dozen red roses, a sappy card, and some chocolates in a heart shaped box. Either way these are part of a larger ritual display. While weíre all familiar with the birds and the bees, animal reproduction is as diverse as the kinds of critters that copulate.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines courtship as "in animals, behaviour that results in mating and eventual reproduction. Courtship may be rather simple, involving a small number of chemical, visual, or auditory stimuli; or it may be a highly complex series of acts by two or more individuals, using several modes of communication." In humans we tend to think of courting behavior in the context of social customs and cues. Animals, on the other hand, do everything instinctually without the help of Cupid or conversation heart candies.

Some customs are well known, but are actually less common than originally thought. The female Praying Mantis is known for devouring the head of the male after the act is complete. However, this is not necessarily always the case. When two mantises meet and care very much for one another they perform intimate rituals. They will gently caress one anotherís antennae and dance together. After the courting is complete they get down to business. About a third of the time the female will eat the head of the male. Researchers still are unsure of the reasoning behind this behavior, but it is likely to provide nutrition for the newly expecting mother. Others think itís simply because the female gets confused and mistakes the male for prey. This practice mostly occurs in captivity and entomologists rarely see the same behavior in the wild. Either way females will usually only perform sexual cannibalism when starving. The Praying Mantis isnít the only one with a robust sexual appetite though.

Black Widows are a well known species of venomous spider. Male widow spiders, which are much smaller than their counterparts, will prep for the intimate embrace by spinning a small web coated in sperm. After coating this web in semen he will coat his palps, small appendages adjacent to the mouth, with his sperm. At this point he will set off into the world in search of Mrs. Right. Once he finds her he will serenade her by performing a vibratory songódancing and plucking the strings simultaneously. As this progresses he will slowly approach her and tenderly tap on her body. Eventually he will insert his palps into her reproductive organs. Once the relationship has been consummated the female will make the male into a snack. While male widow spiders are busy bees spinning a web of love some suitors are overly eager and suffer a premature ending from their efforts.

The Honey Bee recently has been noted for their dwindling population numbers. While science hasnít come to a definitive answer for the reason behind falling numbers they have found out one reason for the demise of a male bee. Generally speaking male honey bees exist to serve one purpose Ė to mate with the queen. The male bee, called a Drone, will give up his life to serve his purpose in a form of sexual suicide. When ready the queen will take flight, and males will give chase and swarm around her. A male will eventually grab a hold of her and insert himself. The drone will then inseminate the queen with a contraction so powerful his genitalia breaks off inside the queen and he will fall to ground where he will die shortly thereafter. The queen will take several mates throughout this airborne adventure, which will take place only once in her life. From these lucky suitors she will store the sperm up to use throughout the rest of her life.

Great Horned Owls are an oddity in the animal kingdom in that once they pair off they will stick with that mate for life. Nesting for these raptors will begin in January or February. The rite is initiated by hooting to each other, and then when they are close will bow to one another with drooped wings. This is all followed by mutual beak rubbing and preening of feathers. Once eggs are laid, usually in a group of two to four, the female will incubate them for approximately a month. During this time the female will do little else, and the male is responsible for catching prey and bringing it back to her. About six to seven weeks after the eggs have hatched the young will begin to venture out of the nest and onto adjacent branches and will learn to fly. Young Great Horned Owls will stick around the nest for a few more weeks while they are slowly weaned, and begin to search for a new territory all their own! A pair of Great Horned Owls will generally claim a territory about one square mile in size. Itís not uncommon for the young to stay near or even within this area for the first year of its life. Although after that the young will be considered competition for the parents and will need to seek all new territory.

The North American Black Bear operates on a different set of standards. Mating season for the black bear can run from May to August. During this time black bears (both males and females) will have several different mates. A female will leave scent trails by marking trees, small plants, and more in order to attract a mate. Males will follow these scent trails to find the female bear. Occasionally more than a single male will follow a trail, which leads to a fierce confrontation. After a male does eventually locate the female he will spend several days edging closer and closer to her while she becomes accustomed to his presence. Eventually the two will get close enough and they will begin to nuzzle one another and communicate. Itís after this ritual when their relationship is consummated. The male and female will generally spend two to three days in throes of love mating several times. Once their amorous behavior has ceased they will go their separate ways in attempts to find another new suitor. Most incredibly a female bear may have fertilized eggs, but they will not develop or attach to the womb until she settles down for hibernation. Itís in late January and February that one to three cubs will be born and will nurse from their mother until they emerge in spring. These cubs will stay with their mother for approximately one year. After this period they will then set out on their own in search of new territory.

Cupidís arrow isnít limited to just mankind, but pierces the heart of even the beasts of the wild. From demonstrating amorous intentions to wild escapades that end onesí life, love takes many forms. Either way we all do what comes natural and Valentineís Day is just one of our more complex courting behaviors that aims to achieve the same things as wafting pheromones or massaging antennae. Donít forget to show your mate you care by whatever means is appropriate to the species. Grab a bottle of wine, snag a card, and share a candlelit dinner because after all a little romance never killed anyone Ė except widow spiders, honey bees, and praying mantises.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson