An interlude

Michelangelo's Pietá. Photo Credit: Paweesit

Michelangelo’s Pietá. Photo Credit: Paweesit

One of my favorite descriptions of all time is Irving Stone’s Michelangelo standing in the quarry at sunrise, gazing at raw chunks of marble in the early dawn light. He is peering inside the stone to discover the figure that lays within, the man or woman or angel that needs to be freed through his hammer and chisel.
He was not creating these sculptures, but releasing what he believed already existed within. I realize that with my own book, I have the same feeling, a sense that there is a story to be released. Yet, unlike Michelangelo, I first have to build the blocks of marble, filling endless white pages with words that will ultimately be carved away. It is a process in two stages, and truth is, I like the carving best.

But first, I must create what needs to be chiseled into form. I’m under no allusions that Sex in the Sea is anything approaching a work of art such as that of the Pietá, but with some luck, I hope tell a story that has long been waiting to be told.

The blog is momentarily quiet as the building process continues, hammer and chisel at the ready. Stay tuned.

Twitter feed from Real Scientists!

_MG_4963Last week, in celebration of the lead up to Valentine’s Day, I had a blast curating the Real Scientists twitter feed. Fantastic community, smart questions, hilarious sexseapuns. From mass synchronized spawning in corals, to lobster love potions, to Right whale threesomes, we covered a lot of ocean. But don’t worry- the tales are captured in this Storify! (for better viewing and in chronological order starting Feb 8th through Valentine’s Day go to this link: Marah Hardt Talks Sex in the Sea)

Below is the Storify in reverse!

Have a look to catch up on your sexseatriva and other fun stories of sex in the sea. Huge thanks to all the admin and great curators over at Real Scientists, a fantastic resource for science on the web.


A Little Swing for Your Salty Sex

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I capture here two of my favorite loves: Swing & my research on SEX IN THE SEA!

Cole Porter’s Lyrics from Let’s Do It! (starting at about 1:58! especially!)

Romantic sponges, they say, do it
Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Cold Cape Cod clams, ‘gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish, do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Electric eels I might add do it
Though it shocks ’em I know
Why ask if shad do it – Waiter bring me shad roe

In shallow shoals English soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love!!!!


All Female bone-devouring worms fancy dwarf males, except one

Close up of male O.priapus dissected from a bone. scale: 0.25 mm. Credit: Greg Rouse

A close-up view (scale: 0.25 mm) of a male Osedax priapus dissected from a bone. Credit: Greg Rouse

Thrilled to have my first post up on the mighty and brilliant Deep Sea News site. Click the link to dive into the sex lives of extreme scavengers of the deep, Osedax. They are bone-devouring worms that lack a mouth or gut and until recently, seemed to have a thing for micro-males. A new study published by the fantastic deep-sea invert expert, Greg Rouse, at Scripps, describes a new species where, lo and behold, the males have escaped the evolutionary clutches of enslaved stunted existence to develop into free, independent beings that use their bodies as a giant phallus. Rock on deep sea sex.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T the BOFFFS: Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish

“milking” salmon for her roe. Photo: Tim Grey via

They are Big. They are Fat. They are remarkably Fecund. They are Female. And they are Fish. Introducing the BOFFFF and why scientists are saying she deserves more respect. Hint: it has to do with her enormous egg-making capacity and the lack of lunch-box let downs for her developing offspring.  More on my guest blog on Scientific American: Catching Big Mama Fish Curbs Ocean Fertility.

Flipper lunchbox via Randy Heintz, Flickr.

Flipper lunchbox via Randy Heintz, Flickr.



Coral Hybrid: Sex Gone Awry or Saving Grace?


Spawning Acropora palmata

Elkhorn coral spawning. Photo credit: Mark Vermeij










Excited to have my second Guest Blog on Scientific American about a favorite subject: coral mass spawning. Huge thanks to Dr. Nicole Fogarty at Nova Southeastern University for sharing her stories and Dr. Mark Vermeij at CARMABI for fantastic images.

Lolita of the Sea(weed): Update

******So complex and utterly alien are the sex lives of seaweeds that my original blog post on the subject from April required some updating. With much thanks to Dr. Chopin for editing assistance, here’s a revisit to the scandalous sex life of a seaweed. ******

Lolita, By Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

One of the greatest opening lines of all time, this is the introduction to Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant and disturbing Lolita. A long-held favorite of mine, I was utterly thrilled when seaweed guru Dr. Thierry Chopin referred to this modern classic as a model for understanding the complex and rather shocking sex life of a common edible seaweed.

I know what you may be thinking: seaweeds have sex lives?

Dulse along Canada's eastern rocky shore

The red seaweed called dulse and sugar kelp, a brown seaweed, seen in abundance at low tide along the rocky shore of the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada (photo credit: Thierry Chopin)

Yes. Don’t let those passively swaying fronds fool you. Despite their rather limp appearance, seaweeds (also commonly known as marine macroalgae) are raging sex machines, with some of the strangest and most creative forms of sexual reproduction on the planet.  A catch-all group that lumps together remarkably diverse species (green seaweeds are more closely related to trees than they are to brown seaweeds, for example, which are more closely related to fungi), it is no surprise that they display an enormous range of reproductive strategies. Chopin wrote a debrief here on seaweed sex after our interview for Sex in the Sea; he’s insisting that I must include a chapter (or two!) on seaweed reproduction, and I heartily agree. Here’s why: seaweed cultivation is big.  Globally, seaweed farmers grow 23.8 million tonnes a year—nearly 50% of all the world’s ocean farming worth $US 6.4 billion.
Large scale seaweed (kelp) cultivation in Sungo Bay, China. Note seaweeds grown integrated with the cultivation of several invertebrate species (oysters, scallops, abalones and sea cucumbers) (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

Large scale seaweed (kelp) cultivation in Sungo Bay, China. Note seaweeds grown integrated with the cultivation of several invertebrate species (oysters, scallops, abalones and sea cucumbers) (photo credit: Thierry Chopin).

Long recognized as a healthy and delicious food in Asia, seaweed farming is gaining traction in the west, including in Canada, Chile, Europe, and the USA. And it’s not just food that seaweed bestows; this video provides a great overview of the varied and everyday uses for seaweed.

Fast growing and photosynthetic, seaweeds don’t need to be fed like fish or shrimp; they just need sunlight and nutrient rich waters (which they help keep clean) to grow.  They are being tested as natural ways to clean up effluent from fish farms (a key focus of Chopin’s work on Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture), mitigate climate change, and produce healthy and abundant food.  But in order for us to grow more seaweeds, we’ve got to know how they reproduce. We need to understand in intimate detail, the intimate acts of seaweed.

Talking with Chopin, it is clear that there is no one “sex life” of seaweeds. Instead, there is an endless fractal-like sexscape with every imaginable permutation: male-female couplings? They got that. Hermaphrodites? Sure. Asexual inter-generational phases? Check. Dwarf females? Yup. Self-perpetuating parthenogenetic gametes alternating with asexual spore germination…they’ve got that too. And, they can also claim, according to Chopin, “old male perverts” and temptress nymphets.  Which brings us back to Lolita.

cocktails from seaweed

Kelp cocktails, brain child of Bren Smith at Thimble Island Oysters and talented chefs across New York City (photo credit:

Deciphering the wild life cycles of these remarkable food factories has challenged many a phycologist (note: that’s not a typo for a shrink, but a scientist who studies algae). But, with the help of Chopin’s expertise and anything-but-prude French perspective (and a few kelp cocktails), I’m slowly wrapping my nori around it all. Here, for your summer reading pleasure, is the tantalizing tale of a seaweed named dulse (Palmaria palmata) though “Dolores” would be more appropriate.  May your innocent strolls along the seaside never be quite the same again.

An innocent stroll along the seaside (photo credit: windydress via Flickr)

An innocent stroll along the seaside (photo credit: windydress via Flickr)

It all starts with the females, who, according to Chopin, are all young and extremely sexually precocious (seaweeds, like many plants, can have separate sexes, with individuals maturing as males or females). At just a few weeks old, female dulse have fully mature sexual organs called trichogynes  which are slender tubes that reach out to receive the male gametes.

Microscopic mature female gametophyte (left) of the red seaweed Palmaria palmata (dulse) with trichogyne filament visible on the left. On the upper right, a young male gametophyte just starting to elongate. The scale bar at the bottom right represents 0.1 mm (photo credit: Constanza Chianale).

Microscopic mature female gametophyte (left) of the red seaweed Palmaria palmata (dulse) with trichogyne filament visible on the left. On the upper right, a young male gametophyte just starting to elongate. The scale bar at the bottom right represents 0.1 mm (photo credit: Constanza Chianale).

But, these blossoming beauties (what Chopin refers to as the “Lolitas”) are also microscopic in size, a tiny disc less than a millimeter in diameter. For decades scientists searched for the mature females in vain, only discovering them through some accidental lab experiments in the 1980s. The much larger mature males were more easily spotted in the field (but specialists in the lab still had to confirm identification), while the females remained a mystery, their small size but one contributing factor…

…the other reason was that they were rapidly buried alive by their own offspring. But, we’ll get to that.

First, it’s important to note that male dulse, like in some other species we know, don’t grow-up quite as quickly as their female counterparts. In fact, males the same age as mature females are but young, pre-pubescent boys, incapable of satisfying the females’ desires. Males of the previous generation, however, don’t have this problem. Having weathered a winter, so to speak, these older males are more than capable of giving the females what they want: a shower of seed. These older males readily release their tail-less, sperm-like spermatia into the water, relying on the currents to whisk them atop the thin crust of the female. If just one lucky spermatium makes contact with a female’s trichogyne, fertilization can progress.

dulse life cycle

A general life cycle of dulse, adapted from van der Meer J.P. and Todd E.R. 1980. The life history of Palmaria palmata in culture. A new type for the Rhodophyta. Canadian Journal of Botany 58:1250-1256

But the product of this union is rather unusual.  As Chopin explained it in Lolita terms: “So, say a female dulse, Dolores, receives a spermatium from an older male dulse, Humbert. When this happens, the fertilized egg develops into what looks like a mini Humbert, but is actually an asexual sporophyte that starts to sprout from Dolores’ thin surface.”

Let’s call that sporophyte, Pat. Unlike Dolores and Humbert, which are gametophytes—the gamete-producing part of the seaweed’s life cycle—Pat produces asexual spores. As it develops, Pat overgrows the dwarf female Dolores from which it sprang, swallowing her up as if she never existed. That’s really why scientists couldn’t find the mature females of the dulse world: they were overgrown by their offspring’s sporophyte fronds.

Mature sporophyte of the red seaweed Palmaria palmata (dulse), with darker sori of spores (thousands grouped in quadruplets) (photo credit: Thierry Chopin)

Mature sporophyte of the red seaweed Palmaria palmata (dulse), with darker sori of spores (thousands grouped in quadruplets) (photo credit: Thierry Chopin)

Once Dolores is squashed, Pat, having reached a large size, then produces many sets of quadruplet spores, grouped by the thousands to form dark spots, called sori (these dark spots make this the easiest stage of the life cycle to recognize). Every quadruplet has two spores that develop into boys and two that become girls. And these are the gametophytes that can sexually reproduce again.
But the girls can reproduce far sooner. They, like the overgrown Dolores, are nymphets, reaching sexual maturity within a few weeks. As Chopin puts it “and the boys being boys, the girls have to court the males from the older generation. Thus, it is generations after generations. And that’s where things get all Nabokov.”
So, the cycle of inter-generational coupling continues, as these new Lolitas court the males of Dolores’ generation, who are finally sexually mature (eight to twelve months later). Within the same generation, there is no way for one of these nubile females to mate with a guy her own age (of course, this also means she can’t mate with her brothers, which could be why the dulse does it this way).

Chopin concludes: Precocious sexuality of little Palmaria females with their mother’s male siblings, who have finally reached maturity, condemns them to being buried by their offspring’s overgrowing holdfast on the same rocky spot they occupy, hence leading people to believe for a very long time that they never existed!  

It’s a female-mates-with-mother’s-brother-bares-asexual-offspring-that-smothers-mother world out there for dulse.  Figuring out this convoluted life cycle was an important step forward in our ability to cultivate this popular food—and learn how other seaweeds might be doing it.

Of course, there’s another bonus to understanding seaweed sex, besides the opportunities for food production, ecosystem restoration, and other advantages: whatever drives their sex could help our own sex drive, too. Something to consider next time you crunch through that sushi roll.

Getting to Know Whale Vaginas in Seven Steps

Whale underside

Getting a glimpse at a whale’s undercarriage. Photo by Richard Fisher.

Thrilled to announce that I have my first guest blog featured on Scientific American blogs. Check out the full post there.

A teaser:

Step 1: Leverage Victorians’ obsessions with sea creatures

Step 2: Ask a stranger to FedEx a Whale Vagina…

FedEx Mailbox

When you’re mailing a whale vagina, you can trust FedEx

A huge thanks to Dr. Sarah Mesnick with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (and a great mentor of mine) for the fantastic interview that inspired this post. More to come about Dr. Mesnick’s work and marine mammal sex soon. Stay tuned!

Salty Sex Hightlights: April

Photo: Newitz blog title

Every month you can check in here to find the highlights from some salty sex stories from the science and pop culture worlds. During April, I focused on species that have some flex with their sex, as you can tell from the previous post.   As with any journey, there were many side excursions along the way (see #6 below). A more complete collection of articles that caught my attention are at my Sex In The Sea Flipboard magazine, but here’s some top finds from this month’s dive into the red light districts of the big blue:

1. Bluebanded gobies (Lythrypnus dalli): sex change champions of the vertebrate world, fins down. These shy little fish hold nothing back when it comes to performing some serious gender benders: females can morph to males, males back to females, and then back to male again, if the social situation demands it. Flexible with their sexual state, they don’t bend the rules on when to swap: if subordinate, be female; when in doubt, wait it out.  The latter rule means that a goby, placed into a confusing social situation, unsure where they fall in the ranks, will simply revert back to “vanilla” as Dr. Matthew Grober explains it. Their gonads and genitalia become ambiguous. In this fish, peer pressure can make you king of the castle, humble harem-mate, or, Pat.

Photo: bluebanded goby

Bluebanded goby hiding under a sea urchin. Photo credit: Peter Liu

2. INTRODUCING THE GYNOSOME!!! Scientists discovered a new sex organ on the planet “that challenges everything we knew about sexual selection.” It’s called the gynosome, and it’s found in a rare cave insect in the genius Neotrolga.  Not marine, but worth the mention because it is so, well, awesome.  The gynosome belongs to the female Neotrolga, who can use it to penetrate the male in order to receive sperm and very likely nutrition. These randy bugs get it on for sexual bouts that can last up to 70 hours.  To keep everything in place for these marathon sex sessions, spines along the gynosome slot into specific pounches in the male’s reproductive chamber. Like a lock and key, each species has its own configuration. The locking mechansim ensures that even when a researcher comes to pry a copulating couple apart, the  head and torso of the male will break off before the gynosome will give way. Now there’s a need for conscious uncoupling.  For a fantastic run down of how this works, check out Jason Goldman’s article.  Can’t wait to see Isabella Rosselini’s costume for this one…

Photo: Isabella Rosselini as a lusty bee

Isabella Rossilini as a horny insect in Green Porno

3. While scientists were discovering a new sex organ, science journalists were figuring out how to talk about it. The take home: when naming a new body part, don’t call it what it’s not.

Photo: Newitz blog title

Newitz on why calling the gynosome a penis makes us a little less smart


If you read the coverage of Neotrolga’s discovery in the mainstream media, you’re likely to walk away with the terms “female penis” or “penis-like appendage” in your brain. Afterall, the original research paper used the latter term in the abstract. But, as io9 editor Annalee Newitz notes in her article “Your Penis is Getting the Way of My Science,” this remarkable new discovery was not of a penis, nor a penis-like organ at all.  It was a gynosome, a totally new, totally different kind of sex organ: as stated in #2, it’s an inflatable female receptacle (not a delivery device) that penetrates the male’s sex chamber, enlarges, and locks into place in order to receive “voluminous” amounts of sperm that likely nourish the female as much as they knock her up (for several species, ejaculate is like a protein shake that can get you pregnant).  Given such remarkable and unusual attributes, the gynosome deserves recognition for what it is, a truly novel biological structure. To call it a “penis-like” anything is a disservice to science and to us. As Newitz writes:

“When we deprive Neotrogla of her gynosome by calling it a penis, of courseNeotrogla doesn’t care. But we fail to advance the scientific project, which is above all things dedicated to expanding people’s understanding of the world. Instead of learning that there are female bugs with sex organs that behave unlike anything in the human world, articles about a “female penis” reassure readers that nothing could ever exist that challenges the penis/vagina sexual system — nor the system of sexual selection that led to it. And that makes our minds a little smaller.”

Photo: Young article on gynosome

Young, reporting on the gynosome discovery

I can’t blame the scientists for using the term “penis-like” in their description- afterall, the average entomology paper isn’t typically splashed all over major media outlets.  Simplifying the discovery to something that sounded familiar, yet strange, was a great strategy (whether intentional or not) to draw attention to their research (though, new sex organs are probably novel enough to not need a penis joke to get some attention).  But the role of the science journalism world is to take science and turn it into stories that open up further understanding, not shove ideas and revelations into boxes that just don’t fit. We’ve got to be able to build a new, er, box.  The conversation sparked interesting commentary from some great science bloggers including Ed Young over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, along with Jason Goldman, back at io9.  In the end, I think Jason’s argument, drawing from the falls of the once- mighty Pluto and brontosaurus, provides the best rationale for why it matters that we lose the “female penis” analogy.

4. “Finding Nemo lied to your kids, and will do it again in the sequel: finding Dory.”

Photo: clownfish in anemone

Clownfish, more like Oedipus than Nemo. Source.

Sorry Nemo fans, but the truth is out: by the time Nemo dropped into that aquarium tank, his dad Marlin would have morphed into Marlene.  The folks over at The Fisheries Blog summed it up. Check them out for excellent breakdown of pop culture as it relates to fisheries.

5. Color-coded sex change and reverse ejaculation: the ribbon eel (Rhinomuraena quaesita). As young juveniles, these elongate fish are black with a bright yellow stripe along their backs.  Puberty turns the black to blue as the fish develops fully functioning male parts.  A few years later, the blue fades and the whole body turns bright yellow as they change from male to female (protandry).  And here’s a fun fact (besides the colorful sex change): this eel is the only vertebrate known to have its gonads in its tail, located past the anus. This means it has to ejaculate towards—rather than away—from its head.  Good thing they’re so long…keeps ’em from squirting sperm in their eyes.

Photo: juvenile ribbon eel.

Juvenile ribbon eel () (Source)

Photo: adult male ribbon eel

Adult male ribbon eel (Source)

Photo: ribbon eel female

Female ribbon eel (Source)

6. Finally, we get to sea otters, which do not change sex but do some other rather freaky stuff.  Here’s a disturbing yet true tale of the dark side of sea otters.  If you like these furry, cute little elementary backstrokers with a penchant for abalone, do *not* click that link—author Mathhews holds nothing back in his case again these “necrophiliac, serial-killing fur monsters of the sea.”

This piece makes me think I need to reconsider the subtitle for the book:

Sex in the sea—just cuz it’s in water, don’t mean it’s clean.  What do you think?

As always, comments, contributions, and musings are welcome.  If you are conducting research on an animal that swaps sex, let me know.  Stay tuned for more on this subject…oysters anyone?

Sex Change By the Numbers: a tax season reflection

Getting the arithmetic right matters more than you may think for fish...

Getting the arithmetic right matters more than you may think for fish…

While we’ve all been busy crunching numbers for tax time, the female bucktooth parrotfish has been doing a little math, too—except instead of calculating taxes, she’s deciding whether or not to change sex.  In the world of fish, getting the arithmetic right can make or break your sex life.

Fish are some of the few vertebrates that have the ability to regularly change sex (other verts, such as some frogs, may do it under extreme circumstances). And while this is a pretty nifty party trick, changing sex takes a lot of energy- transforming one’s genitals and gonads (external and internal sex parts) is no simple task. So why do fish bother? The answer is: reproductive success. It all comes down to how many offspring an individual can produce. Here’s how it works:

The most common way fish change sex is from female to male. This is called (take a breath) sequential (one sex after another) protogynous (first female, then male) hermaphroditism (one individual, two sexes in a lifetime). In general, for species where big males can control access to females (think harem), it pays to be female when small (you get to reproduce with the dominant male) and then turn into a male when you are big enough to duke it out with a competing male to win access to a group of females.  There are also protandrous hermaphrodites, who start male and turn to female (brace yourselves, Finding Nemo fans, the folks at The Fisheries Blog don’t mince fins on this one)—more on that strategy later.

Back to why switching to male can make sense: sperm are less expensive to manufacture than eggs, so one male will be able to make lots more sperm than a similar sized female can produce eggs—as long as there are enough females churning out enough eggs for the male to fertilize, he’ll make more offspring. The female-to-male sex switching strategy allows for maximum reproduction during all stages of life, when small and when larger…if the conditions are right.

Bucktooth parrotfish. Photo credit: Kevin Bryant.

Bucktooth parrotfish. Photo credit: Kevin Bryant.

And here’s where a little math goes a long way.

Unlike us, the bigger the fish, the more eggs or sperm they can produce. For our species, every woman is born with a set number of eggs, no matter if she grows to be a towering 5’11” or petite 5’0″. And a man’s sperm count has little to do with body size.  Not so for fish. The bigger the female, the larger the number of eggs she produces (and often, the higher quality).  A fish that doubles in size may gain over 10x as many eggs. This fact alone has major implications for management: catching one large female fish can reduce the reproductive output of a school by the same amount as several smaller females. Accounting for that in setting quotas and size limits can be really complicated, but it is critical to effective management. Saving these Big Old Fat Fertile Female Fish (BOFFFS) has become a focused effort of some conservation initiatives, including design of marine protected areas.

Which takes us back to the arithmetic those bucktooth parrotfish females are constantly conducting.  As they grow larger, they have to weigh which choice will bring more babies: changing to male and gaining access to multiple females or staying female, and having your eggs fertilized by the dominant male.  If the sum total of all the eggs produced by all the other females is more than your total number of eggs, it pays to switch and be the male. But, if as a large female you make more eggs than all the other females combined, than you should stay female.


Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

If (female 1 + female 2 + female 3) < eggs than female 4, female 4 stays female.

If (female 1 + female 2 + female 3) > eggs than female 4, female 4 will likely switch to male and take over the harem (and thus begin fertilizing all those eggs).

A large female is especially likely to skip sex change if there are other males around crashing the love nest. In some species, the dominant male is not as dominant as he looks: “sneaker” males that hide nearby can dash in and add their own sperm to the mix (remember, fish have external fertilization, casting sperm and eggs into the water) right when the dominant male spawns. These “sneakers” create high levels of sperm competition that dilute the dominant male’s success rates.  This is good for females, whose eggs are bathed by plenty o’sperm (and a greater diversity of genes), but it is bad news for the male. Studies have shown that in species where this happens, large females often choose not to turn into males. Such is the case with bucktooth parrotfish.

Instead of the standard large size/status-triggered sex change of most protogynous hermaphrodites, large female bucktooth parrotfish are constantly sizing up the other females in the harem, noting the sneakers streaking in, and doing a little mental math to figure out whether its worth it to change sex. And you thought figuring out your taxes was hard.