"A marvelous introduction to the whys and wherefores of animal behavior..."
Headless Males Make Great Lovers: And Other Unusual Natural Historiesby Marty Crump, Alan Crump
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The natural world is filled with diverse—not to mention quirky and odd—animal behaviors. Consider the male praying mantis that continues to mate after being beheaded; the spiders, insects, and birds that offer gifts of food in return for sex; the male hip-pocket frog that carries his own tadpoles; the baby spiders that dine on their mother; the beetle that craves excrement; or the starfish that sheds an arm or two to escape a predator's grasp.
Headless Males Make Great Lovers and Other Unusual Natural Histories celebrates the extraordinary world of animals with essays on curious creatures and their amazing behaviors. In five thematic chapters, Marty Crump—a tropical field biologist well known for her work with the reproductive behavior of amphibians—examines the bizarre conduct of animals as they mate, parent, feed, defend themselves, and communicate. Crump's enthusiasm for the unusual behaviors she describes-from sex change and free love in sponges to aphrodisiac concoctions in bats-is visible on every page, thanks to her skilled storytelling, which makes even sea slugs, dung beetles, ticks, and tapeworms fascinating and appealing. Steeped in biology, Headless Males Make Great Lovers points out that diverse and unrelated animals often share seemingly bizarre behaviors—evidence, Crump argues, that these natural histories, though outwardly weird, are successful ways of living.
Illustrated throughout, and filled with vignettes of personal and scientific interest, Headless Males Make Great Lovers will enchant the general reader with its tales of blood-squirting horned lizards and intestine-ejecting sea cucumbers—all in the service of a greater appreciation of the diversity of the natural histories of animals.
"A marvelous introduction to the whys and wherefores of animal behavior..."
"Crump has compiled a book of odd and icky tales. . . . What Crump has done is monumental of a sort--taking dry, eye rolling, yawn-generating technical scientific observations and making them fun for the general audience. These are the types of chronicles that Robert Ripley . . . made young, wide-eyed, budding scientists drool over in his Believe It or Not! challenge. . . . The book is packed with science, but more importantly, it's a lot of fun. Enjoy!"—Biology Digest
“Zoologists collect nature stories. We pull them out like worn bandannas at field-site campfires and conference socials, keeping lecture-hall sleepers awake. We hone our favorites to their finest edge and listen to those told by the masters, hoping to learn something new. Now there is an entire book of such inspiration in Marty Crump’s Headless Males Make Great Lovers. With short, descriptive sentences, Crump paints an impressionistic portrait of five fundamental aspects of animal existence: mating, parenting, feeding, self-defense, and communication. Stepping easily between her subjects as if they were golden frogs, Crump weaves together natural history, poetry, mythology, family memories, and good humor with appropriate amounts of drama and distance. Each chapter begins with the intriguing, moves to the bizarre, and ends with the most spectacular examples of animal lore, seasoned with experiences from academia, personal friendships, and an elegant grasp of evolutionary and behavioral biology. Regardless of one’s background, there is space at this campfire for all.”
"It's not just about insect sex—though there is a lot of it here. Marty Crump's book is a trawl through the whole gamut of weird animal behaviours. Watch out for spine-anointing, toad-chewing hedgehogs; tortoises that stomp the ground to draw up worms; and the mantids of the title that mate more effectively once the female has bitten off their heads. With Crump's 30-plus years of experience in the field, this beautifully written and charmingly illustrated book combines acute observation with helpful explanation. Nature has never seemed so bizarre and splendid."
"Weird words have their fans; and so do weird moments in natural history. In this book, biologist Marty Crump celebrates animal diversity, with the emphasis on the bizarre. Her aim is to bring the stuff of scientific papers to the general public. She ranges widely, from elephant seals to bowerbirds. The headings include sex, of course, as well as eating, young-rearing and defensive behaviour. Who would believe that hedgehogs anoint themselves with toad venom as a defence? That rabbits eat their own dung? Or that sea slugs like group sex? The book grosses out, but also educates. Not for intelligent design proponents."
"The author has written an unabashed natural history—a celebration of the oddities and weirdness that can be found in the world of animal behavior. . . .With luck, this book will stimulate some younger readers to develop an interest in behavioral science, a stated goal of the author, while also building a greater appreciation in readers of all ages for the diversity of life."—John Alcock, Quarterly Review of Biology
"[Crump's] greatest strength is her ability to interpret natural history with an evolutionary perspective; such popular science writing is rare and refreshing. Moreover, because she meticulously documents her sources in a bibliography of references consulted, her book can be extremely useful to instructors looking for examples to spice up a lecture in an introductory biology class.—May Berenbaum, Ecology
"This unnatural history of the diverse social and sexual practices of insects and animals makes you glad that you are not a slipper limpet, even though it spends most of its life engaged in group sex and changes sex regularly. Nobody has a worse life than emperor penguins which breed in temperatures as low as minus 95F (-70C) and in wind speeds that reach 120mph. Female spiders chew the heads off their mates during sex—but they're game guys so they find another mate which eats what's left of them. Do they care? They're just doing what a guy's gotta do."
"Crump starts with sex but then explores other natural phenomena with an engaging down-to-earth approach that will keep you turning the pages from blood meals to legs modified into fangs to pheronomes as alarm signals. It's a great read."
"The combination of bizarre facts and rational, evolution-based explanations will make this an ideal book for an intelligent, nature-obsessed teenager (or, indeed, any-ager). I wish I could have read it 50 years ago. . . . We are living at a time of exponential growth in zoological knowledge, and inspired popularizers like Marty Crump . . . are needed to interpret the new findings for the rest of us."
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Read an Excerpt
Headless Males Make Great Lovers and Other Unusual Natural Histories
By Marty Crump
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHeadless Males Make Great Lovers
From whence arrived the praying mantis? From outer space, or lost Atlantis? I glimpse the grim, green metal mug That masks this pseudo-saintly bug, Orthopterous, also carnivorous, And faintly whisper, Lord deliver us. -Ogden Nash, from Custard and Company
Continue having sex after your head has been chewed off? That's what intrigued my fifteen-year-old son. He was writing a report on the sex lives of praying mantids-the first time all semester I'd seen him do any biology homework.
Rob knew that mantids are relentless predators. As a kid, he'd seen them lie in wait for prey, with their spiny, grasping front legs upraised and their pincers partially opened, poised for action. He'd watched mantids' heads swivel three hundred degrees as the huge eyes tracked their moving prey. And he'd witnessed unwary grasshoppers and caterpillars get nailed and then consumed. He'd read that female mantids sometimes eat their mates, but until freshman biology class he hadn't known that headless males make great lovers.
Imagine the following scenario: a male mantid, attracted by the smell of a female hidden in a lilac bush, creeps up behind her and whenclose enough leaps onto her, secures a perfect grip on her body, and copulates. No courtship, no permission asked or granted. He has behaved "appropriately" for a male mantid.
If a male doesn't behave appropriately, he may incite trouble. Positioning is everything. A male that approaches a female from the front may meet immediate death by decapitation. If he sneaks up behind her but is just a little off on his grip, the female might bite off his head and dine on her brainless suitor as he continues to pass sperm into her body. Sometimes the impetuous female partially eats the male before he even mounts her. In this case, the headless wonder swings his legs around until his body touches hers, climbs onto her back, and copulates as though nothing were amiss.
Headless sex? How can it be? Copulatory movements in mantids are controlled by masses of nerve tissue in the abdomen rather than the brain. Males of some mantid species mate more effectively when decapitated. Why? A nerve center in the male's head inhibits mating until a female is clasped. If this nerve is removed, such as when the female bites off the male's head, all control is lost and the result is repeated copulation.
Sometimes the female devours her mate under circumstances outside the male's control. If the pair is disturbed and the temperamental female becomes frightened, her immediate reaction is to whip around, snatch the male's head in her greedy mandibles, and gnaw it off. In some species, a female's propensity to consume her mate is unrelated to the male's behavior or outside disturbance. It's simply part of the mating ritual.
In all fairness to the eighteen hundred or so species of mantids, cannibalism is far from universal. Sexual cannibalism-defined as a female killing and eating her mate during courtship, copulation, or shortly after copulation-probably occurs in a minority of mantids.
Considering mantids' potential cannibalistic behavior, why do people worldwide endow these insects with holiness? It's their characteristic posture of supplication-front legs held together outstretched toward heaven-that commands respect. People living in the Middle Ages believed that mantids spent most of their lives praying to God, and some Muslims insisted that mantids always pray with their heads facing Mecca. Mantis is a Greek word meaning "prophet" or "clairvoyant." Soothsayers used mantids, believed capable of foretelling events, to distinguish the fortunate from the unfortunate. Ancient Egyptians believed that mantids carried a person to the gods after death. Some Africans worshipped mantids because they believed these insects could resurrect the dead. Some ancient beliefs are still with us: If a mantid alights on your hand, you'll meet a distinguished person; if it alights on your head, you'll receive a great honor.
Even the mantids' cannibalistic reputation has earned them respect. The Asmats, a native tribe that lives in southern New Guinea, greatly admire these insects. Until the mid-1940s, Asmats were fierce headhunters and cannibals, so it was natural they should admire an insect as fearless and cannibalistic as themselves. To honor these insects, Asmats commonly decorated their drums, shields, and spears with mantid figures.
Rob's question was why do some females eat their lovers? Biologists, long fascinated by sexual cannibalism, have suggested various explanations for why such bizarre behavior should evolve and be maintained in some mantids, spiders, and other invertebrates. There are different, nonmutually exclusive explanations depending on the species and its natural history and whether the female eats the male before or after mating.
Mistaken identity may explain why females eat their prospective mates before copulation. Females that engage in sexual cannibalism are aggressive and predaceous by nature, and they may mistake a potential mate for food. This rationalization probably fails to explain many instances of sexual cannibalism, however. If females couldn't discriminate between potential mates and food, many would end up virgins and never reproduce.
An alternative explanation for cannibalizing a prospective mate before copulation is discrimination among potential mates. Female garden spiders are more likely to cannibalize small wimpy males than large macho males. Why doesn't a female just reject the small guys and allow them to move on? The small ones make nutritious treats. Just one male, even a small one, gives the female energy to produce more eggs.
A third explanation for why a female might eat her suitor before copulation is that perhaps she weighs the value of a courting male as a sperm donor versus a food item. If she hasn't been very successful finding food recently and it's early in the breeding season, she should eat the male. On the other hand, if courting males seem to be a rare commodity and especially if it's late in the breeding season, she should mate with him. Females that have already mated once would be expected to attack courting males more often than should virgin females. A recent study with fishing spiders lends some support for this idea but does not exclude the possibility that sexual cannibalism may be simply misplaced aggression.
Why would a female eat her mate after copulation? In some cases, males might offer themselves up for food as an investment in their offspring, especially if they have little chance of mating again. For example, female orb-weaving spiders often eat their mates after copulation, but even if a male is not attacked, he will die soon after his first mating. A male might increase his reproductive success if the extra nutrition provided by his body increases the number of young his mate can produce or if it improves his offspring's health, size, or survival. This explanation at one time was suggested for black widow spiders. They've been falsely accused, however. Sexual cannibalism is not as common in these spiders as originally believed. Furthermore, like mantids, male black widow spiders do not willingly sacrifice themselves. Although studies of some species of spiders and mantids have shown a positive effect of sexual cannibalism on the female's reproduction, other studies have shown no effect. Obviously, this is not the rationale for all species.
Another explanation for eating a male during or after copulation is assurance of paternity. In many biting midges (tiny flies called no-see-ums or sand flies), the female eats the male during copulation, treating her mate the way she does any other insect prey. She pierces his cuticle and dissolves and sucks out his body contents, draining him in about thirty minutes. When the female disengages from her lifeless mate, a portion of his body remains attached to her. This "plug" may keep other males from mating with her, thus assuring not only paternity of the now-deceased male but also fertilization of all the female's eggs. By dying in this way, the male increases his reproductive success.
If a male's fitness benefits from his being eaten during or after copulation, he might facilitate cannibalism, especially if he is unlikely to mate again. One example where males actually encourage sexual cannibalism is the Australian redback spider (Latrodectus hasselti), closely related to the black widow spider.
Mating in Australian redback spiders occurs on the female's web. After a male probes, taps, and nuzzles the female, he inserts a palp (the appendage that transfers sperm) into his much larger mate. Then he flails his legs in the air and turns a somersault, bringing his abdomen up against the female's mouthparts. He effectively says, "Here I am-eat me." The female slowly consumes her mate during copulation. The male withdraws once he has completed sperm transfer five to thirty minutes later. Mutilated, he grooms himself in preparation for the next lovemaking session. About ten minutes later, he briefly probes, taps, and nuzzles his mate and then engages his second palp. Again he somersaults and presents his now-shrunken abdomen to his mate. She sinks her mouthparts into his body and continues to digest. After completing insemination, the now-weakened male withdraws, and the female wraps him in silk. It will take her less than fifteen minutes to finish her meal.
A field study of Australian redback spiders reveals that females eat their mates about 65 percent of the time. Males always do the somersault, offering themselves up for a meal, but only hungry females accept the offer. A male is only 1 to 2 percent of the female's mass, and cannibalism by the female does not increase the number or mass of eggs she produces. So why such behavior from the males? Cannibalized male spiders receive two paternity advantages. First, they copulate twice as long and therefore fertilize about twice as many eggs as uneaten males. Second, cannibalized males are more likely to father offspring because females are less inclined to re-mate after eating a male. If a female mated again, the second male would father some of her eggs. The cost of suicide is low for these spiders because even if they survive a copulation, they're unlikely to mate again. Whereas females live up to two years, males live only two to four months after they mature. Males rarely eat after reaching maturity, and if they survive a mating, they often stay on their mate's web.
After my son turned in his report, I enlightened him further on the macabre behavior of sexual cannibalism. "Real guys don't lose their heads," I confided. "They have ways of avoiding being eaten by their mates."
Some scorpions use a variation on the "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" technique. Female scorpions release sexual attractants that guide males to them. Once a male locates a female, he grasps her claws with his and leads her in a prolonged mating waltz, referred to as a promenade à deux, in search of a hard surface, a stick or rock. Once the scorpions find an appropriate object, the male deposits a sperm-bearing packet on the object and then drags the female over it. She sucks the sperm into her genital pore, and almost immediately the male violently smacks her with his tail and scurries off. Why? Because if he isn't fast enough, she may eat him.
Male spiders have trouble even getting close enough to a female for sex. The minute a female feels vibrations on her web, she assumes food has arrived. Males are almost always smaller than females, so they're often mistaken for food. Males must identify themselves as males before the females' hunting instincts and gastric juices take control.
In some species, the male vibrates, twitches, or drums on the female's web in a characteristic way that announces he's a potential suitor rather than food. Sometimes a male wolf spider must signal his intentions by waving his legs for hours, circling a female at a discreet distance, before she submits. If a male stumbles upon a female unexpectedly and has no time to wave his legs, woe unto him! Male jumping spiders signal their intentions to females through complex courtship dances. They zigzag to and fro, jerking their abdomens about in styles reminiscent of Hawaiian hula dances. Some just sway as if in a drunken stupor.
Some male spiders don't announce their presence at all but have ingenious ways of avoiding being cannibalized. For some, patience pays off. A male waits on the sidelines of the web until the object of his desire has captured something to eat. Then, while she's otherwise occupied, he makes his move.
Bribes also do the job. Some spiders offer nuptial gifts to their prospective mates. Once a male common European nursery web spider matures, instead of eating a juicy insect, he wraps it in silk, holds the enshrouded corpse in his jaws, and searches for a female. Once she's found, he approaches her cautiously and offers his gift. If the offering is too small, the female walks away. If it's acceptably large, she bites into it and begins to suck out the juices. Once she's distracted by eating, the male mates with her.
A little brute force also works wonders. Courtship in some tarantulas begins with the male drumming his front legs against the female's body. Though she lifts her front legs in a threatening gesture, the suitor taps and strokes her. She responds to his overtures by lifting her body higher and exposing her fangs. A stab by the female could prove fatal, so the male wraps a pair of hooks on his front legs over her fangs, yielding them ineffective. In this position, he can safely transfer sperm.
Would you believe kidnapping as a strategy? Males of one crab spider kidnap immature females and build silken tents around them that serve as prisons. Standing guard over their captives, these males chase away other males. Once the females are barely mature, the males assault them before they're strong enough to resist.
And then there's good old-fashioned trickery. Males of some spiders, including crab spiders, slowly creep up on females and throw a silk net over them before mating. After mating, the male escapes while the impregnated female disentangles her legs. These males can depart nonchalantly since the females are roped down. In most other spiders, the male dashes seemingly panic-stricken from his ex-lover. If he doesn't escape quickly, she may tie him up, kill, and devour him.
The prize for cleverness and ingenuity in avoiding sexual cannibalism goes to male dance flies. These common small to medium-sized flies often swarm around trees and fly in an up-and-down or circular motion, thus the common name. Females are hotheaded and aggressive-a bad combination for male dance flies. As in some spiders, distraction is the solution. And males have developed brilliant tricks.
Most dance flies eat other small flies, such as mosquitoes and midges. In some species, the male dance fly offers the female a nuptial gift-an insect he has caught. He can then mate safely while the female is distracted by eating. In other species, the male is more imaginative and artistic. He wraps his gift in silk before offering it to the female, gaining precious time as she unwraps the insect before consuming it. We've all known stingy people. But dance flies? One species captures an insect, sucks out the juices for his own meal, and then wraps it in silk. He offers a female the parcel and begins to copulate. By the time she has unwrapped the empty insect shell, he has completed mating and even gotten a meal to boot.
I think I convinced my fifteen-year old son that the mating game can be dangerous. As he walked away, I imagined him thinking, "What if you gave a girl a Whitman's sampler box with nothing left but the papers? Or sucked out the cream insides and gave her the chocolate shells?"
Excerpted from Headless Males Make Great Lovers and Other Unusual Natural Histories by Marty Crump Copyright © 2005 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Marty Crump is Adjunct Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University and a Conservation Fellow of the Wildlife Conservation Society. A recipient of the Distinguished Herpetologist Award, she is coauthor of In Search of the Golden Frog, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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