20 animal mating rituals from the cute to the cannibalistic

Why “the birds and the bees” metaphor should terrify you.

Why “the birds and the bees” metaphor should terrify you

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

At CBC Life, we talk a lot about the challenges of love and dating, the sting of rejection, the pain of heartbreak. But we've got it easy. Even if it's awkward when your ex texts you out of the blue, mating in nature can get far more extreme. We've gathered 20 of the most interesting, dangerous and messy animal mating rituals to consider this Valentine's Day. 

1. Angler Fish: The clingy boyfriend

Angler fish mating begins when the male angler fish literally sinks his teeth into the female. He attaches himself permanently and lives as a parasite on the female's larger body. However, as their bodies fuse, the male becomes completely absorbed into the female, losing any independent existence. All that remains are a pair of gonads, which the female keeps to use when she's ready to reproduce. 

2. The Octopus' identity reveal

Abdopus auleatus has a complex mating culture. Some males live in adjacent dens to their female mates to guard them. Others, known as "sneaker" males, sometimes disguise themselves as females to slip by the guards and mate with the female. However, avoiding the wrath of other males isn't the only reason sneakers change colouration. Octopuses are notoriously anti-social. Scientists believe that males may also impersonate females to avoid being cannibalized by them. 

3. Hippopotamus ritual — A literal s**t-storm

Urine and feces are the cologne of the hippo world. To impress female hippos, males don't just defecate and urinate near them; they use spinning tails and some of the most powerful farts on earth to fling the mess far and wide, to make sure all the females in the area can smell it. If he catches a female's interest, she'll raise her rear up out of the water to show she's ready to reciprocate… by showering him in dung. Scientists call this "submissive defecation." 

4. Flatworms: En garde!

Flatworms are seaborne hermaphrodites who can play either the male or female role in reproduction. When two flatworms meet, they extend sharp two-headed penises and try to stab each other with them and inject the other with sperm. Getting pregnant doesn't necessarily mean losing though. In many species, "fathers" continue to "fence" with other individuals until they are inseminated too. 

5. Bonobos: The free-love ape

Whereas a lot of animal sex seems purely reproductive, bonobos are promiscuous, engage in a wide variety of recreational sex-acts with members of both sexes, and aren't particularly jealous. They use sex to make friends, form group bonds, and as currency. Also, they are one of the few non-human animals to copulate face-to-face. 

6. Clownfish: Fight to get/be the girl

All clownfish are born male and spend their lives fighting their way up a strict hierarchy determined by size and aggression. But the clownfish that are tough enough to reach the very top of their group get a special prize: they transition into female form and become the only female in the group. They then mate with the second-baddest clownfish on the ladder. They alone are allowed to mate. 

7. Marsupial mice: Here for a good time, not a long time

Puberty hits hard for the males of these tiny Australian marsupials. When they reach sexual maturity, their testes disintegrate and the clock starts ticking on a short but frenzied mating period. Nature gives them just a few weeks to use the sperm they've accumulated to ensure their posterity before they die. 

The boys skip sleep and run around frantically looking for mating opportunities, while their fur falls out and they develop ulcerations and gangrene. Although you might expect the males to fight during this desperate bid to reproduce, they're actually quite friendly with each other. 

8. Nursery web spiders: "Bring snacks"

The male nursery web spider comes bringing gifts of carcasses of prey wrapped in silk, which he gives to the female before copulating. Once thought to be a thoughtful show of parental investment, scientists now believe it's meant to prevent her from eating him. We're not sure why it can't be both. 

9. Garter snake: Party on the Prairies

Narcisse, Manitoba is home to the largest annual gathering of snakes in the world, and it's an orgy. Every spring, the males emerge first from their underground lairs. When a larger female turns up, the males form into a giant mating ball in which a single female is surrounded by up to 100 males who all try to mate with her at the same time. Male garter snakes have also been known to produce female pheromones in order to fool other males into trying to mate with them.

10. Puffer fish: Underwater sex lairs

A small species of puffer fish will spend seven to nine days making large ornate circle patterns on the seafloor which they decorate with shell fragments. The males flap their fins and swim around creating circles of near 2 m in diameter, even though they're only 12 cm long. Females come to examine the finished circles and decide whether they'd like to mate with their makers. Although they're sure the circles are important in mating, scientists are still unsure exactly what female pufferfish look for in an underwater sex lair. 

11. Bowerbirds: The illusionists

Bowerbirds, native to Northern Australia, are architectural-illusionists. To attract females, they don't just dance or flash their feathers. They build a twig structure called a "bower," which they decorate with bones, man-made objects and stones (the "court"). When a potential mate arrives, the male stands in the court by the bower's exit and shows her the colourful objects he's collected. The illusion? The objects are arranged with the larger objects farther away from the bower. From where she's standing, this makes him look larger than he actually is. 

12. Bees: Ride and die

When a drone bee has the rare chance to mate with the queen, it's the last thing he does. He ejaculates with an explosive pop, rupturing his endophallus. He becomes paralyzed and flips over backward. His barbed endophallus remains in the queen, ripping open his abdomen as it's torn from the rest of his body. He dies. She holds onto his semen for later use. 

13. Manakins: The wingman

Manakin seduction is a double-act. Males approach in pairs, sing a duet and perform a dance together. After watching the double-act, the female decides if she wants to mate. However, only the alpha of the pair ever gets to mate. The beta is a chaste sidekick, but he may not always remain so. Acting as a beta helps a manakin learn the moves to use if he becomes an alpha. 

14. Albatrosses: "I'll always come back to you"

Albatrosses like to travel. They're migratory birds who can spend years at sea without ever touching down on land. But when they do come home to the Galapagos Islands for mating season, they always come back to their lifelong partner. The pair greet each other with an intricate 20-minute mating dance. When an albatross couple does breed, the parents will feed the hatchling for nearly a year until it is ready to set off on its own for four or five years without returning.

15. Humpback whales: Saltwater "arena" rock

Like many birds, male humpback whales sing to attract females. However, unlike most animals, they do so in chorus. When looking for mates, males gather in large groups in areas researchers call "arenas". They then spread out and all sing together to let the women know where they are. 

16. Lovebirds: The couple you hate

Yes, "lovebirds" is actually the name for these small colourful parrots. In courtship, couples stick close together, preening each other and chirping. They build elaborate nests together. They feed each other (by regurgitating into the other's mouth). They also mate for life. It may seem a bit much, but don't separate them. When separated from their mates, lovebirds have been known to die of a broken heart. 

17. Prairie voles: Super-loyal, best when sober

Prairie voles are among the most monogamous and affectionate mammals. They can sense when their partner is stressed and shower them with affection. They spend most of their time together, and that's usually how they like it: the couple will chase away other voles of either sex that approach them. Except when alcohol's involved. According to Oregon researchers who tested their fidelity while "under the influence", alcohol makes female voles want to be closer to their mates, but can lead male voles to stray. 

18. Adelie penguins: Girl's best friend

Male Adelie penguins scour the rocky beaches that they live on for smooth shiny pebbles that they can bring as a gift to woo females. If the female likes the gift, she'll use it to line her nest, mate with the male and the two will continue building up a pebble nest to hold any eventual eggs. However, this is not an exclusive pair bond. Females will still mate with other males who show up with the right stone. 

19. Sage grouse: The other Alberta "Stampede"

Every spring, sage grouses that are native to the Canadian Prairies gather in large groups at a "lek". The males engage in competitive strutting displays, puffing out special air sacs in their chests and making specialized sounds. The females gather around to watch, and choose who they like best. And they generally tend to agree: 80 per cent of the females mate with the one or two most dominant males. 

20. Porcupines: Let it rain

The porcupine mating window is small: females are open to it for only about 8-12 hours per year. But when it rains, it pours. The male porcupine opens by climbing a tree and soaking the female with urine from up to seven feet away. If she likes how it smells, then she will mate with him over and over again until he's completely exhausted. The 12-hour mating period is enough to get the female pregnant 90 per cent of the time. 

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.