Monday, January 31, 2005

The Sex Life of a Sponge

Dr. James Dobson really opened a can of worms (pun intended) when he took on the sex life of SpongeBob SquarePants. According to David Helvarg:

When it comes to sex outside of marriage, the oceans that cover 71 percent of our planet are rife with reproductive strategies and behaviors that would make Caligula, or even Bill Clinton, blush.

SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who has a background in marine biology, had to be aware that in creating a cartoon sponge he’d be opening himself up to charge of marine-based immorality. Sponges can reproduce asexually, for example. And if Dobson’s followers don’t object to that, I’m sure they’ll be distressed to learn that sponges can be hermaphrodites, too. Single sponges not only produce sperm and eggs but are broadcast spawners, indiscriminately releasing sperm in such profusion as to turn seawater smoky white.

Life in the sea, in fact, is largely about reproduction, not traditional family values.

Take the blue crab, pound for pound one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet. Yet when the female undergoes her molt of puberty, she releases a scent that makes the male’s aggression dissipate like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the presence of Maria Shriver. They’ll then copulate for between 10 and 48 hours before regressing to single-crab combat.

The sex life of the blue crab raises the question, Do marine organisms have orgasms? Which leads to related questions such as, Do they need to? And how does that make you feel when you order a tuna-fish sandwich?

We don’t really know how much fun blue crabs or tuna are having. We do know that many species of fish vocalize, or at least produce sounds from within their bodies, at the moment they “broadcast their gametes.”

And that’s only the beginning. Certain species, such as blue-headed wrasses, are transgender. They all start out as females; some then flip a hormonal switch to function as males when they spawn together.


What about our fellow mammals? Because dolphins are intelligent, sociable and have jaw structures that make them appear to be smiling, we like to think of them as peace-loving and playful. The bottlenose dolphin of Flipper fame, however, has a sex life less like that of a hippie than that of a Hells Angel.

Male bottlenose dolphins will form alliances of two to four to isolate and have sex with a single female they like. They’ll keep other males away while repeatedly copulating with her for several weeks at a time.

The terminally cute sea otter is a marine weasel into rough sex. The male otter’s arms (legs, whatever) are effective for grooming their fine pelts or cracking shells on the rocks they place on their bellies, but they are too short for getting a good grip on a mate. So the male gets firm purchase by biting down on the female’s nose before going for a little splendor in the kelp.

Afterward you can often spot the females hauled up on rocks along the shore, their fur matted and their noses bloody. It’s not hard to imagine that a female with a heavily scarred nose might get a reputation as an easy otter.

Is it any wonder why hordes of college students rush to the beach for spring break? They’re there to take lessons.