I was on a panel a few weeks ago discussing mutations, and what they can and cannot do. Spider-man was one of the topics, because the sad truth is that the Comics industry has conspired in a G-rated cover-up to hide his terrible, terrible affliction.
Spider-man’s spider webbing talent isn’t what you think it is. Sure, male spiders do have special appendages on the front of their bodies–they are really noticeable ”boxing gloves.” They actually can be up to 20% of a male spider’s body weight.
Those are not, however, what spiders shoot silk or webbing out of. These pedipalps have one function. SEX.
That white, sticky stuff Peter Parker is shooting out of his wrist? Um. Yeah.
There is a reason that people freak out when he shoots a big blop of splooge at them.
See, spiders have a very odd reproductive system. Male spiders don’t have a penis. (I don’t know if a side effect of Mr. Parker’s radioactive spider bite was his penis falling off, but that might explain his perpetual whiny attitude. Even if if he did manage to initially retain his penis, it probably broke off later during mating with Mary Jane.)
Pedipalps are modified appendages at the front of a male spider. They use these to insert sperm into a female’s body. To get the sperm out of his gonads in the rear, a male spider creates something called a “sperm web” that he limbos underneath and deposits sperm onto.
He then turns around and “loads” the sperm into his pedipalps, and sets off to find a female and hook up. Pedipalps are the spider equivalent of a turkey baster.
Don’t see the parallel? Let’s review how Mr. Parker’s “slingers” work. His arms are modified appendages at the front of his body. He has to “load them” with “fresh wet-fluid.”
NOW YOU KNOW THE TRUTH.
“But, Bug Girl!” You say. “You don’t understand the story!” Ok, let’s suppose, for your collective mental sanity, that Mr. Parker is actually shooting spider silk, not nocturnal emissions, at villains.
Is that….an improvement? I can certainly see why Spider-man would prefer to gather up the silk and dispense it from a gizmo on his arm, rather than have a little flap in the back of his leotard.
If you would like to look at male spider pedipalps in action, check out this video. The naughty part begins at 2:35 — note that it really is very much like a turkey baster in function!
MORE HORRIBLE TRUTH:
I saw this tweet a while back, and it made me awfully curious:
Is that true? Because that seems like not a very smart thing to do, if you are a large and tasty insect. Or, in this case, two large leaf-eating insects belonging to a group that specializes in being invisible to predators by looking like a stick. Two sticks having sex is the sort of thing I’d notice, anyway.
The risk of predation while you are making out–or more literally “hooking up” in the case of insects–is a major issue. You can see from this photo that a fair amount of Kama Sutra-ish contortion is needed to successfully maneuver into place. This does tend to inhibit one’s ability to run away!
Several different papers I read repeated that stick insects have remained paired for up to 79 days, but I was not able to see an actual reference with the original details. Some of the references cited date back to 1910, so not surprising that I can’t get my hands on a digital copy.
From one paper describing mating behavior:
“The Indian stick insect Necroscia sparaxes may remain coupled for up to 79 days (a record for insects)”…Intromission may occur only initially or intermittently. In either case, a substantial proportion of male time-investment is not spent in ejaculate transfer.
In captivity, Diapheromera veliei and D. covilleae pair for 3 to 136 hours and the penis may be inserted and removed up to 9 times. The genitalia are not in contact for ca. 40% of this period, and attachment is maintained by a male clasping organ.
It’s generally thought that the male hangs around in order to have repeated matings, but also to drive off other males that want to get lucky. I found several reports of stick insect menage a trois (or sept) in the literature, including this etching of kinky stick insect activity. The male is–literally–cock-blocking a competitor.
So, it’s probably correct to say that stick insects can remain paired for up to 79 days, even though I can’t verify that directly. It is less correct to say that they “have sex” for 79 days, just as it would not be technically correct to say you mated for 8 hours if you had sex at 10pm and again at 6am. Well, unless you are into that tantric stuff, anyway.
Snce 1400 hours = 58 days, the numbers don’t match up, and it is not correct that stick insects mate for 1400 hours. It’s more like 1,896 hours!
Sivinski, J. (1978). Intrasexual Aggression in the Stick Insects Diapheromera Veliei and D. Covilleae and Sexual Dimorphism in the Phasmatodea, Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 85 (4) 405. DOI: 10.1155/1978/35784
I talked about Varroa Mites yesterday, and I wanted to point out that solitary bees also have parasites that can be deadly. Osmia, or Mason bees, occur in all shapes and sizes, but nearly all 300 species are fuzzy, mild-mannered, and adorable. They’re called mason bees because they create nest chambers out of mud. Each individual female does all the work herself, unlike social bumble bees and honey bees.
Solitary bees pose a unique challenge for a parasite. How are you supposed to build up a population when your host doesn’t live in a group or a herd? Somehow you have to spread and move between both individuals and generations.
One time when even solitary animals have to hook up is…. when they hook up. Parasitic mites on bees hop off one host and onto another just like changing taxis. The bees are too otherwise occupied with gettin’ it on to notice.
I posted some footage of varroa mites on honeybees yesterday, but that pales in comparison to the horror I’m about to show you. Indeed, I hope it will shock you, make you quite itchy, and put you off sex for a while. (I’m not getting any, so might as well make it a universal condition.)
From the video author:
“These Red Mason Bees are heavily (probably fatally) infested with mites. Mites will often move from the male bee (who picks them up whilst visiting flowers), to the female during copulation. The female will then carry them to her nest where they will feed on the provisions and breed. Mites often will suck the blood of bees, sometimes leading to death. Heavily infested bees are unable to fly.”
The mites are probably Chaetodactylus osmiae, but that’s a guess.
Miloje KRUNIĆ, Ljubiša STANISAVLJEVIĆ, Mauro PINZAUTI, & Antonio FELICIOLI (2005). The accompanying fauna of Osmia cornuta and Osmia rufa
and effective measures of protection Bulletin of Insectology, 58 (2), 141-152
Amazing. Under this headline:
“Science still cannot explain why women sleep around”
“A study published today in Science details a series of careful experiments Swedish researchers conducted on mating seed beetles (pictured). They want to find out what the benefits were to females who mated with multiple males….”
Now, as a normal person, you are probably thinking: “WTF does a paper in Science about beetles have to do with promiscuity in women?” The answer would be NOT A GODDAMN THING.
This is one of the most blatant, shameless examples of “sexing up science” I’ve seen in a long time.
Here is the actual paper they are referring to:
Bilde, T., Foged, A., Schilling, N., & Arnqvist, G. (2009). Postmating Sexual Selection Favors Males That Sire Offspring with Low Fitness Science, 324 (5935), 1705-1706 DOI: 10.1126/science.1171675
It is a paper about seed beetles, people. Seed. Beetles.
In the press release covering this paper, there is no mention that this research means anything for mammals, much less humans. So… where did this get connected up to explaining why women “sleep around?”
In the messed up little head of the writer, that is where. Because human women liking sex is clearly deviant, and in need of explanation.
And that is how you get crazy sentences like this one:
“Why would these insects have sex with so many different men, only to choose the crappiest sperm?“
As I said initially, Amazing. Aside from the Green Porno of Isabella Rossellini, I am not aware of any human-insect hookups. (And, frankly, do not want to be aware of any, so please don’t email me.)
There are a whole host of other errors in this i09 article, and I’ll just pick this one: It does not use the term fitness correctly.
In evolution, the one who dies with the most babies wins. Even if the animal is small, unhealthy, and wimpy. The males with the most offspring are, by definition, the most fit.
BTW, I was asked recently to recommend some things to read critiquing evolutionary psychology, and this seems like a good spot to stick some links.
Related posts on Bad Evolutionary Psychology:
- Pop/Pap Psychology
- Susan Brownmiller dissects Thornhill’s book about rape (very well done!)
- An entertaining rant (although dated) from Natalie Angier
- Sexual Selections: what we can and can’t learn about sex from animals (Zuk’s very fun book)
- An interesting discussion of Evo Psych at Huffpo; They try to categorize the different flavors of EP
An amusing letter arrived earlier this week:
My name is Margot and I’m the webmaster of http://www.best-pheromones.com. I wanted to know if you could do a paid UNBIASED review of our product/site. Please let me know if you are interested.
Margot [name and email removed]
I was especially intrigued by the capitalization of “unbiased.” After I got done laughing, I sent back a response:
I am an entomologist, and I write about insect pheromones, and the way they are used in agriculture.
I will not be linking to your commercial website, nor accepting cash to write about what I think (here’s my UNBIASED opinion) is a crock of BS. Human pheromones have little documentation in the scientific literature.
For the record, Margot sent me a very polite thank-you back. Point to Margot.
Now, there are a few human chemicals that do seem to meet the definition of a pheromone. You can read a nice introduction to what is known about human pheromones in this APA article. The pioneer in human pheromone research is Martha McClintock, who first isolated and showed that a pheromone was responsible for synchronizing women’s menstrual cycles.
This is probably not the compound for sale at the commercial website. At least, I hope not–I really don’t think a guy dousing himself in that compound will get the response he wants.
There are some other compounds that do seem to induce changes in human physiology. The compounds that have been studied most are steroid musks (androstenol and related compounds) produced by glands in men’s underarms. Yummy!
However, the physiological changes that have been reported are not the “do me now!” that is sold by human pheromone companies. I think this bit from a peer-reviewed paper’s abstract is important:
“Although this is additional evidence that androstadienone may be a pheromone, it is yet to be determined whether humans exude concentrations into the air adequate for social communication or process this chemical information within natural social contexts.”
Translation: we can make a chemical, and we can measure that it’s doing something. But we don’t know if this actually happens in day-to-day human life.
I think it’s significant that another peer-reviewed study found a chemical could affect women’s mood, but not their behavior. From the abstract:
“The results showed that exposure to a non-detectable amount of androstadienone modulated women’s psychophysiological arousal and mood in a positive direction but did not change attention performance or rating of facial attractiveness. Moreover, mood effects were only evident when an experimenter of the opposite sex conducted the testing. This suggests that social context is important for mood effects of androstadienone exposure in women. “
Interestingly, the results were the same in a different study when they tested a proposed female pheromone on men–the sex of the interviewer affected the action of the test compound. My inference from this is that as humans, we respond primarily to the person interviewing us, rather than how they smell. Which is pretty logical, given that we are a highly visual and social animal.
I also was intrigued by this study looking at the effects of a proposed human pheromone on marketing–men exposed to a male pheromone felt more manly, but it had no effect on women.
If the results are so mediocre, why are so many researchers working on the issue of human pheromones? Just how much money is being made on human “pheromones,” anyway? One company (traded under stock symbol EROX) reports revenues of 1.2 million bucks. And that’s just one company of the many, many companies in on this snake oil that supposedly gets you laid.
I suspect that most human pheromones sold would fail a chemical test comparing what chemicals are actually in them with what’s claimed to be in the bottle. And, given that the cheapest human pheromone I’ve seen was $25/ounce, that’s a highly profitable ripoff.
Lastly, there is also a larger ethical question in play here.
WTF makes someone pay large sums of money–usually over the internet–to buy a mystery liquid that claims to make them irresistible? If some of the claims of these companies were true, they are essentially selling a date-rape drug. Which would make the person buying this stuff pretty despicable, IMHO.
Symposium: On the nature of mammalian and human pheromones
The McClintock paper in Nature, demonstrating menstrual synchrony
The other likely human pheromone: a review of mother-baby physiology and behavior