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TEDGlobal 2013

Carin Bondar: The birds and the bees are just the beginning

June 12, 2013

Think you know a thing or two about sex? Think again. In this fascinating talk, biologist Carin Bondar lays out the surprising science behind how animals get it on. (This talk describes explicit and aggressive sexual content.)

Carin Bondar - Wild sex biologist
Carin Bondar is an expert on the sexual life of animals -- and loves to tell their wild sex stories. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Anyone in the room thought about sex today?
00:12
(Laughter)
00:15
Yeah, you did.
00:16
Thank you for putting your hand up over there.
00:17
Well, I'm here to provide you with
00:20
some biological validation
00:21
for your sordid daydreams.
00:23
I'm here to tell you a few things
00:24
that you might not have known about wild sex.
00:26
Now, when humans think about sex,
00:29
male and female forms
00:31
are generally what come to mind,
00:33
but for many millions of years,
00:35
such specific categories didn't even exist.
00:37
Sex was a mere fusion of bodies
00:40
or a trickle of DNA
00:42
shared between two or more beings.
00:44
It wasn't until about 500 million years ago
00:46
that we start to see structures akin to a penis
00:49
or a thing that gives DNA out,
00:52
and a vagina, something that receives it.
00:55
Now invariably, you're probably thinking about
00:58
what belongs to our own species,
01:00
these very familiar structures,
01:03
but the diversity that we see in sexual structures
01:04
in the animal kingdom that has evolved
01:07
in response to the multitude of factors
01:09
surrounding reproduction
01:11
is pretty mind-blowing.
01:13
Penile diversity is especially profuse.
01:15
So this is a paper nautilus.
01:19
It's a close relative of squid and octopus,
01:21
and males have a hectocotylus.
01:24
Just what is a hectocotylus?
01:27
A detachable, swimming penis.
01:29
It leaves the [body of the male],
01:33
finds the female through
pheromonal cues in the water,
01:36
attaches itself to her body
01:39
and deposits the sperm.
01:41
For many decades, biologists actually felt
01:42
that the hectocotylus was a
separate organism altogether.
01:45
Now, the tapir is a mammal from South America.
01:49
And the tapir has a prehensile penis.
01:52
It actually has a level of dexterity in its penis
01:55
much akin to what we have with our hands.
01:58
And it uses this dexterity
02:00
to bypass the vagina altogether
02:02
and deposit sperm directly into the female's uterus,
02:04
not to mention it's a pretty good size.
02:08
The biggest penis in the animal kingdom,
02:11
however, is not that of the tapir.
02:13
The biggest penis-to-body-size ratio
02:15
in the animal kingdom actually belongs
02:17
to the meager beach barnacle,
02:19
and this video is actually showing you
02:21
what the human penis would look like
02:23
if it were the same size as that of a barnacle.
02:25
(Laughter)
02:29
Mm-hm. (Laughter)
02:32
So with all of this diversity in structure,
02:34
one might think, then, that penises
02:37
are fitting neatly into vaginas all over the place
02:39
for the purposes of successful reproduction.
02:42
Simply insert part A into slot B,
02:44
and we should all be good to go.
02:47
But of course, that doesn't exactly happen,
02:49
and that's because we can't
just take form into account.
02:51
We have to think about function as well,
02:54
and when it comes to sex,
02:56
function relates to the contributions made
02:58
by the gametes, or the sperm and the eggs.
03:01
And these contributions are far from equal.
03:04
Eggs are very expensive to make,
03:07
so it makes sense for females to be very choosy
03:09
about who she shares them with.
03:12
Sperm, on the other hand, is abundant and cheap,
03:15
so it makes more sense for males
03:19
to have a more-sex-is-better strategy
03:20
when it comes to siring members
03:23
of future generations.
03:24
So how do animals cope
03:26
with these very incongruent
needs between the sexes?
03:27
I mean, if a female doesn't choose a particular male,
03:30
or if she has the ability to store sperm
03:34
and she simply has enough,
03:36
then it makes more sense for her to spend her time
03:38
doing other biologically relevant things:
03:40
avoiding predators, taking care of offspring,
03:42
gathering and ingesting food.
03:45
This is, of course, bad news for any male
03:48
who has yet to make a deposit in her sperm bank,
03:50
and this sets the scene for
some pretty drastic strategies
03:52
for successful fertilization.
03:55
This is bedbug sex,
03:59
and it's aptly termed traumatic insemination.
04:01
Males have a spiked, barbed penis
04:05
that they literally stab into the female,
04:08
and they don't stab it anywhere near her vagina.
04:10
They stab it anywhere in her body,
04:13
and the sperm simply migrates
04:15
through her hemolymph to her ovaries.
04:17
If a female gets too many stab wounds,
04:21
or if a stab wound happens to become infected,
04:23
she can actually die from it.
04:25
Now if you've ever been out for a nice,
04:27
peaceful walk by the lake
04:29
and happened to see some ducks having sex,
04:31
you've undoubtedly been alarmed,
04:34
because it looks like gang rape.
04:36
And quite frankly, that's exactly what it is.
04:38
A group of males will grab a female,
04:41
hold her down,
04:43
and ballistically ejaculate their spiral-shaped penis
04:44
into her corkscrew-shaped vagina
04:49
over and over and over again.
04:52
From flaccid to ejaculation in less than a second.
04:55
Now the female actually
gets the last laugh, though,
04:58
because she can actually manipulate her posture
05:00
so as to allow the sperm of certain suitors
05:03
better access to her ovaries.
05:06
Now, I like to share stories
like this with my audiences
05:10
because, yeah, we humans,
05:12
we tend to think sex, sex is fun, sex is good,
05:13
there's romance, and there's orgasm.
05:16
But orgasm didn't actually evolve
05:19
until about 65 million years ago
05:20
with the advent of mammals.
05:22
But some animals had it going
on quite a bit before that.
05:24
There are some more primitive ways
05:27
of pleasing one's partner.
05:29
Earwig males have either
05:31
really large penile appendages
05:33
or really small ones.
05:35
It's a very simple genetically inherited trait
05:36
and the males are not otherwise any different.
05:39
Those that have long penile appendages
05:41
are not bigger or stronger
05:43
or otherwise any different at all.
05:45
So going back to our biological minds, then,
05:46
we might think that females should choose
05:49
to have sex with the guys that
have the shorter appendages,
05:51
because she can use her time for other things:
05:54
avoiding predators, taking care of young,
05:57
finding and ingesting food.
05:58
But biologists have repeatedly observed
06:00
that females choose to have sex
06:03
with the males that have the long appendages.
06:05
Why do they do this?
06:09
Well, according to the biological literature,
06:11
"During copulation, the genitalia of certain males
06:13
may elicit more favorable female responses
06:16
through superior mechanical
or stimulatory interaction
06:19
with the female reproductive tract."
06:22
Mm-hm.
06:25
These are Mexican guppies,
06:28
and what you see on their upper maxilla
06:30
is an outgrowth of epidermal filaments,
06:32
and these filaments basically form
06:34
a fish mustache, if you will.
06:36
Now males have been observed to prod
06:39
the female's genital opening
06:41
prior to copulating with her,
06:43
and in what I have lovingly termed
the Magnum, P.I. hypothesis,
06:45
females are overwhelmingly more likely to be found
06:48
with males that have these fish mustaches.
06:52
A little guppy porn for you right there.
06:56
So we've seen very different strategies
07:00
that males are using when it comes to
07:02
winning a female partner.
07:05
We've seen a coercion strategy in which
sexual structures are used in a forceful way
07:06
to basically make a female have sex.
07:11
We've also seen a titillation strategy
07:13
where males are actually
07:15
pleasing their female partners into choosing them
07:17
as a sex partner.
07:19
Now unfortunately, in the animal kingdom,
07:21
it's the coercion strategy that we see
07:23
time and time again.
07:26
It's very common in many phyla,
07:27
from invertebrates to avian species,
07:30
mammals, and, of course, even in primates.
07:32
Now interestingly, there
are a few mammalian species
07:35
in which females have evolved specialized genitalia
07:38
that doesn't allow for sexual coercion to take place.
07:42
Female elephants and female hyenas
07:46
have a penile clitoris,
07:49
or an enlarged clitoral tissue that hangs externally,
07:51
much like a penis,
07:55
and in fact it's very difficult to sex these animals
07:56
by merely looking at their external morphology.
07:59
So before a male can insert
his penis into a female's vagina,
08:02
she has to take this penile clitoris
08:06
and basically inside-out it in her own body.
08:07
I mean, imagine putting a penis into another penis.
08:11
It's simply not going to happen
08:14
unless the female is on board with the action.
08:15
Now, even more interesting is the fact
08:19
that elephant and hyena societies
08:21
are entirely matriarchal:
08:23
they're run by females, groups of females,
08:25
sisters, aunts and offspring,
08:28
and when young males attain sexual maturity,
08:30
they're turfed out of the group.
08:33
In hyena societies, adult males
08:35
are actually the lowest on the social scale.
08:37
They can take part in a kill only after
08:40
everybody else, including the offspring.
08:43
So it seems that when you take the penis power
08:45
away from a male,
08:48
you take away all the social power he has.
08:49
So what are my take-home
messages from my talk today?
08:54
Well, sex is just so much more
08:56
than insert part A into slot B
08:59
and hope that the offspring run around everywhere.
09:01
The sexual strategies and reproductive structures
09:05
that we see in the animal kingdom basically
09:07
dictate how males and females
will react to each other,
09:10
which then dictates how populations and societies
09:14
form and evolve.
09:17
So it may not be surprising to any of you
09:19
that animals, including ourselves,
09:21
spend a good amount of time thinking about sex,
09:23
but what might surprise you is the extent to which
09:26
so many other aspects of their lives and our lives
09:30
are influenced by it.
09:34
So thank you, and happy daydreaming.
09:36
(Applause)
09:38

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Carin Bondar - Wild sex biologist
Carin Bondar is an expert on the sexual life of animals -- and loves to tell their wild sex stories.

Why you should listen

Group sex, prostitution, masturbation -— every sexy thing we humans do, says Carin Bondar, animals do too, and a whole lot more we, thank goodness, can't (see topic: chastity belts). Bondar, a biologist, hosts the truly astonishing Wild Sex video series on earthtouch.tv , where over two seasons she's been using science and uberwatchable storytelling to tell surprising tales of animal mating. As she says: "We hit topics hard, and not just for the quirk factor, but because there is a lot of cool science behind so many strange mating rituals."

For contrast, her first book, The Nature of Human Nature, examines the unique behaviors of the human species in the context of Darwin's Survival of the Fittest. Bondar is also the host and producer of SciAm Cinema, a monthly series of the best stories from the Scientific American blog network, and the co-host (with Phil Plait) of TwiST, a weekly series about science and tech on the Science Alert YouTube channel, as well as a TV host for Discovery International and National Geographic Wild.

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