Leather cuffs, ropes, candle wax, edible underwear. We humans, in all our arrogance, think we've got the creative sex market cornered.
But the truth is that we're nothing more than kinky amateurs in the sexual marketplace. Our non-human cousins have been engaging in sex acts that we might consider taboo a lot longer than we have. It's nature's best-kept secret: for any sex act that you might find arousing, and a bit outside of traditional sexual conventions, there's an animal that not only engages in that behavior, but for whom it is the norm.
You think Fifty Shades of Grey is hot? Here are seven ways that animals are kinkier than you ever thought.
A sip of giraffe urine
Perhaps the obvious place to start is the giraffe. The long-necked animals spend most of their time quietly munching on leaves. At least, it sounds quiet to us, because most of their vocal communication occurs outside the range of human hearing. But what they lack in their ability to shout, they more than make up for when it comes to assessing the suitability of a potential mate. The bull, which is what you call a male giraffe, visits various herds looking for a female, called a cow. When he finds a cow he likes, he doesn't coyly ask for her number. There are no flowers, no chocolates, no movie dates. He gets right to the point by leaning over and gently nuzzling her rear end. The goal? To catch a sip of her urine.
“When the bull nuzzles her rump," write researchers David M. Pratt and Virginia H. Anderson, "she must produce a stream of urine if he is to catch some in his mouth and savour it," they write. The idea is that he can to detect various chemical indicators in her urine that indicate whether she's prepared to mate. He knows none of this, of course. He's just doing what evolution has guided him towards doing: wandering around, lapping up some urine, looking for a date.
Hippos' flying faeces
But the giraffe is an amateur compared to the hippo. The most under-appreciated of the African megafauna, the hippopotamus may seem like nothing more than a waterborne cow, but they are not to be trifled with. According to legend, more people are killed each year by hippos than by sharks, and while they're not all that graceful on land, they can charge at superspeed when they're in the water.
Like giraffes, male hippos are called bulls. Unlike giraffes, hippos are more into dung than urine. For a species that can be quite aggressive, it is perhaps not all that surprising that they spend a good deal of time marking their territories. And they do that by leaving very large piles of dung on the banks of the rivers and ponds they swim in. As they deposit their excrement, they use their tiny tails as tennis rackets, shooting bits of poo off in every direction. Some males can send their faeces flying off as far as two metres away!
But the males aren't the only ones who engage in "dung-showering," as it is called. When a territorial male is on the prowl, the females aren't entirely passive. If a female hippo is interested, she turns around, raises her rear end out of the water, and presents him with a dung shower of her own. Like the males, the females also use their tails to spread the stinky love around. Researchers refer to this sort of mating ritual as "submissive defecation."
Garter snakes' massive mating balls
As winter turns to spring in Manitoba, Canada, the snakes emerge from underneath the ground in search of both food and sex. They get together in aggregations that can number tens of thousands of individuals and wiggle around in massive, writhing mating balls. The balls are created after the females release a pheromone that indicates their presence, a sort of serpentine clarion call. Males from all over sniff her out and slither on over, hoping for a chance to father some limbless offspring of their own.
But group sex isn't all that's going on. In the middle of all the sex (or, at least, attempted sex) going on inside the mating ball is a group of males who are pretending to be female.
For a while, many researchers suspected that males who released the same sorts of pheromones typically released by females were doing it to deceive other males. For one thing, pretending to be a female would allow a male to avoid aggression from other, larger, more dominant males. By avoiding the ire of another male, the female mimics could survive another day in hopes of finding a chance to mate. Alternatively, the mimicry could be an effort to trick other males into wasting their sperm. The duped males would go on thinking they'd managed to secure their genetic heritage, none the wiser about the con.
But in 2001, a group of researchers came up with a different explanation: warmth. When a groggy male snake emerges from its winter slumber, it's only a cool 10 degrees Celsius. But reproductive males are usually a good fifteen degrees warmer. By pretending to be female, the mimic could simply be trying to warm up. As a bonus, by hiding underneath a mass of eager males, the female mimic could avoid predation by the hungry crows that wait nearby.
Three is company for North Atlantic Right whales
Garter snakes may be known for group sex, but usually the snakes only have sex with one partner at a time. That wasn't the case for a female North Atlantic Right whale who was observed by scientists in the August 2000 in the waters off of Canada.
It was a summer afternoon in the Bay of Fundy when a group of researchers conducting observations of the whales' summer feeding habits found themselves with front row seats to a scene that would make even Christian Grey, the eponymous male character in the Fifty Shades of Grey book and film, blush.
For forty seconds, the three-way was engaged in what the researchers referred to as 'simultaneous intromission'
A female was traveling with three males, a typical aggregation known as a "surface active group" or SAG. In some species, males compete for reproduction by attempting to prevent others from mating. For these whales, however, the sperm does all the competing. So it's common for the females to mate with several of the males in her SAG, multiple times. When the female is ready to have sex, she typically rolls over and swims upside down near the surface. The male rolls onto his side to allow his prehensile penis better access to the female's vagina.
When the researchers observed the female and one of the males begin intercourse, they weren't all that surprised. The copulation lasted for about two minutes before the male disengaged and rolled back over to breathe. "Several undulations of the penis were observed during the copulation," write the researchers, "but it is not known whether these were associated with ejaculation."
About fifteen minutes later, the two whales resumed their positions and began to have sex again. Just then, one of the other males surfaced alongside the pair. And thirty three seconds later, he inserted his penis into her vagina as well. For forty seconds, the three-way was engaged in what the researchers referred to as "simultaneous intromission," before the first male had to make the threesome into a twosome in order to catch a breath of air.
It wasn't just an erotic marine mammal ménage-a-trois. It was, as the researchers noted, scientific history: "the first observation of a female right whale copulating simultaneously with two males."
Sexual frenzy of the grunion fish
Speaking of salty sex, no list of surprising sexual practices could be complete without the humble grunion. It's an unassuming fish, silvery with hairline streaks of blue, red, and yellow running along the length of their bodies, which rarely grow longer than 17 or 18 centimetres.
For several nights surrounding each new moon and full moon in the spring and summer, roughly from March to August, the fish gather on sandy California beaches from Mexico's Baja peninsula all the way up to Point Conception. Surfing the high tide onto the shore, the fish have gathered there for just one purpose: to mate.
It's a salty, sandy, wet, moonlit piscine orgy. The females cruise in on a wave and wiggle themselves, tail first, into the cool wet sand, until just their heads are visible. Once in position, each is ready to deposit her eggs, just four inches beneath the surface. But not before they get fertilised. The males take the next few waves to the shore, gathering themselves in circles around the females. There, they release their sperm in a white-ish fluid called milt. The milt flows down the females' slick bodies until it reaches the eggs. The males ride the next wave back out to sea. The females twist and turn their way out of the sand and they, too, return to the surf.
Most females spawn six times during the season, which means over the course of an entire season she can lay as many as 18,000 eggs. The males, for their part, release as many as one million sperm in a single spawning event, and they can participate in several spawnings per night. Several hours later, the beach once again gets quiet. The following morning, beachgoers likely have no idea that they're frolicking about just hours after an intense sexual frenzy.
Buprestid beetles mate with beer bottles
Perhaps one of the most common ways in which humans try to spice things up in the bedroom is through the use of sex toys, or less commonly, inflatable sexual partners. These are usually silicone or plastic objects that have been made to resemble male or female anatomy, either visually or behaviorally, or both. Luckily, our big fat primate brains usually know the difference between a sex toy and the real thing. Not so for an Australian jewel beetle called Julodimorpha bakewelli.
It was in 1983 when a pair of Australian zoologists named Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz noticed a photo being passed around among entomologists of a male beetle attempting to mate with a beer bottle. Was it a fluke or could the behavior be reproduced? The researchers set out in search of beetles and litter. In just half an hour, they spotted at least six male beetles trying to mount and copulate with beer bottles.
Unfortunately for the poor males of the species, the forewings of females are a beautiful brown hue, dotted with small dimples. The problem is that they're remarkably similar to a particular colour and texture of glass often used in beer bottles. "The shiny brown colour of the glass is similar to the shiny yellow-brown [wings] of J. bakewelli," they wrote, while "a discarded wine bottle of a different colour brown held no attraction."
Not only do discarded beer bottles pose an environmental hazard, they also pose a serious problem for these beetles. The bottles are so attractive to the males that they actually prefer them to actual females. And that's not all: ants have learned to congregate near discarded beer bottles, waiting for a lonely beetle to try his luck. Then, they can quickly attack, overpower, and gobble him up. As a result, the species is rapidly on its way towards extinction.
Red velvet mites' sperm garden
The red velvet mite sounds like a slightly creepy cross between a spider and a cupcake, and it basically is. When a male decides he's ready to stop living the single life and settle into fatherhood, he builds a structure that some folks refer to as a love garden.
He constructs the garden from plant parts, using his own sperm as the glue. Then he lays down a silk road leading to the entrance of his garden, like the world's strangest red carpet. There he sits, waiting for a female to come by. If she likes what she sees, she may accept his invitation back to his place. There, she sits herself down on top of a package of sperm and nutrients called a spermatophore, and the happy couple can rest easy knowing that their genetic legacy is secure.
But some male red velvet mites are bullies. If they discover another male's love garden – and if it's empty, because the architect is waiting for his beloved at the opposite end of the silk trail – he'll make a mess of the place.
It's not just that he wants to destroy his competition; he wants to let his competition do all the work for him. And he does that by covering the shattered ruins of the love garden in his own sperm. After the original builder does all the hard work of attracting a female and luring her back to his place, she has no problem going right ahead and impregnating herself with the bully's sperm...leaving the cuckolded arachnid to weep with sorrow and begin the slow process of rebuilding his love garden once again.