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.
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…
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Juvenile ribbon eel () (Source)
Adult male ribbon eel (Source)
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?