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Fascinating facts about mating in the animal kingdom

  • Garter snakes have a ball

    Known officially as Thamnophis elegans, garter snakes are known for a bizarre mating ritual that, to the untrained eye, could be mistaken for something out of a horror movie. They form into giant “mating balls” made from masses of males that swarm a single female and jockey to achieve the correct mating position. When one lands it, he subdues the female with an oxygen-depriving kiss that makes her docile enough to inseminate, and then, as quickly as it started, the ball dissipates into individual slithering members once again.

  • Bowerbirds are interior decorators

    Like birds of paradise, bowerbirds live only in New Guinea and a few tiny Australian islands. Also like birds of paradise, they put on an extensive undertaking as part of their mating ritual, but it has nothing to do with dancing. They build elaborate structures called bowers—hence the name—and decorate them with colorful objects like leaves, flowers, and even man-made items like plastic and glass, in order to seduce a female.

  • Male porcupines walk on pins and needles

    An individual porcupine can bristle with 30,000 hollow, needlelike quills designed to embed themselves deeper and deeper into animal flesh—and these living pincushions put them to good use when it’s time to mate. Females are fertile for only a tiny window of eight to 12 hours, and they announce their readiness by spraying the air with a musk that draws males from all around. They battle ferociously for the right to mate, but it’s not really a right—if the female isn’t satisfied with the victor, she’ll block his mounting attempts with her quills.

  • Pufferfish make underwater crop circles

    Deep on the seafloor in 1995, divers noticed perfectly symmetrical circles emblazoned with geometric patterns that they compared to underwater crop circles. It turns out, they were the hallmark of pufferfish mating. Males from a tiny species of pufferfish use their fins to create the designs to attract females, kind of like an underwater bower.

  • Garden snails wield penises from their heads

    Like flatworms, common garden snails are hermaphrodites. When they mate, each one of them extends—from their heads—a penis toward the head of the other. The two appendages entangle and one inseminates the other.

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  • These spiders are regifters

    Male nursery web spiders try to butter up females by offering them the gift of a fly or another unfortunate insect wrapped in a web cocoon. If she’s not into it, she’ll threaten him and send him packing. If she likes it, they mate—only for the greedy male to leave and take his gift with him.

  • Mantis murder and cannibalize—but only sometimes

    Female praying mantis are infamous for biting off the heads of males and devouring their bodies after mating, but they get a bad rap—sort of. They don’t always murder and cannibalize after mating, only if they’re hungry or agitated, so it just kind of depends on her mood.

  • Queen bees are sperm hoarders

    A virgin queen honey bee mates by flying to a location where thousands of drone bees are waiting and she mates with several of them while in flight. When a male is finished, he pulls away, tearing off his appendage and leaving it inside the queen—which quickly kills the male. The females then store as many as 100 million sperm in their oviducts and use them to fertilize eggs as needed throughout their lives.

  • Female hyenas can be difficult mates

    Female hyenas are larger, more aggressive, and have more testosterone than males—it’s easy for casual observers to mistake one for the other. The female has a dummy penis—it’s actually a hyper-enlarged clitoris—that looks just like the real thing. Because of their strength and aggression, and because their appendage often gets in the way, males often have a hard time successfully mating.

  • Penguins get undue credit

    Penguins are known for developing lifelong, loving, and monogamous relationships, but most of that is actually flightless bird urban legend. While many do choose partners for life, most species cheat frequently, including to sometimes engage in homosexual sex. Oh, and females are infamous for kidnapping each other’s chicks.

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