If you thought the business of making a baby was challenging, consider the stick insect. The male of this species has been known to remain on the female's back for up to five months after sex in order to keep rivals at bay. Then there's the praying mantis: during sex, a female often starts devouring her lover's head first a move that doesn't stop him from consummating the act and fertilizing her.
As "Sexual Nature," an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum, conclusively shows, reproduction in the animal kingdom is about rather more than a candlelit dinner, strewn rose petals and a Ne-Yo album playing in the background. It can involve furious combat between males (stag beetles, elk), exhausting nights spent bellowing your amorous intentions (as toadfish do, at extraordinary volumes), or the evolution of drastically cumbersome equipment (see the barnacle, which has a penis 30 times its body length).
Using videos, photographs, recordings and more than 100 specimens, "Sexual Nature" entertainingly explains the role of sex in mixing up gene pools and creating the adaptations necessary for the survival of the fittest. "It's really all about the relationship between sex and evolution," says curator Tate Greenhalgh.
Well, not entirely. Part of the show looks at human mating habits, in which sex thrives not simply for procreation but for recreation and reconciliation as well. Like others in the animal kingdom, humans consciously or subconsciously choose mates with offspring-enhancing traits like fertility, health and wealth. But humans, especially males, place a higher value on physical attractiveness. And unlike their praying-mantis counterparts, they'd prefer to approach an attractive female without having their heads bitten off.
"Sexual Nature" runs until Oct. 2. See nhm.ac.uk for more.
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