Creature Courtship

The Unusual Mating Rituals of the Animal Kingdom

With Valentine's Day around the corner, romance is on the minds of many. An after hours event at the Lincoln Park Zoo explores the sex lives of animals, from the unusual to the alarming. Jay Shefsky met up with the zoo's general curator, Dave Bernier, to discuss the mind-boggling mating habits and reproductive processes of the their animals.

Strange Mating Habits and Traits of Animals

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Strange sexual behavior and proclivities are not unfamiliar to the human race. But when it comes to taboo habits, the rest of the animal kingdom may have us beat. From gender role reversals to strange anatomy, below are some of the weird ways that animals get their freak on.

Whiptail Lizards

Two whiptail lizards engaging in asexual mating; credit: Jodi [Flickr]

Whiptail lizards embody the independent woman. In fact, some species are composed of all-female populations. So how do they reproduce without a male suitor? They basically “clone” themselves through a process called parthenogenesis. Interestingly enough, mating behavior is simulated by a female lizard mounting another female. This activity stimulates unfertilized egg production in both lizards. They will lay eggs that hatch all-female lizards.

Argentine Lake Ducks

An Argentine Lake Duck showing off his goods; credit: K. McCracken

Most birds don’t have penises. Instead, they have a cloica, which is a posterior opening possessed by both males and females. The Argentine Lake Duck is an exception to that anatomical norm. In fact, in relation to body length, they have the longest penis of all vertebrates. When fully erect, the bird’s penis can equal its body length – about 17 inches. The lake duck uses their long, corkscrew reproductive organ to lasso unwilling females. What an obnoxious avian!


A group of bonobos hanging out; credit: LaggedOnUser [Flickr]

Some say bonobos, an ape species, have evolved past violence. In truth, they appear to glorify sex, which plays a major role in their society. Mating serves as a form of greeting and even conflict resolution. Males will hang from a tree limb and “fence” penises to settle disputes. Bonobos are the only non-human animal to engage in a wide range of sexual activities, including tongue kissing, oral sex and face-to-face genital sex. The apes don’t seem to discriminate potential mates by age or gender. Calling the bonobo a sexually progressive species would surely be an understatement!


A male giraffe exhibiting the flehmen response to a nursing female; credit: Colin the Scot [Flickr]

Male giraffes have an unusual way of checking the fertility of their female mates. They perform something called the flehmen response, which entails the male giraffe nudging the female’s behind to induce urination. The male will then taste her urine to see if she is in estrus, or “in heat.” Once a fertile female is detected, the male will court her and ward off any subordinate males.

Spotted Hyenas

A female spotted hyena carrying the remnants of a meal; credit: Demetrius John Kessy

Female spotted hyenas have masculine genitalia. They have what’s called a pseudo-penis – an enlarged clitoris that’s shaped like a penis and capable of erection. They have no external vagina, so this opening serves as the birth canal. During copulation, a male inserts his penis into her pseudo-penis. This anatomical anomaly reflects the more aggressive nature and larger, stronger physical build of the female hyenas compared to their male counterparts.

North American Porcupines

A female North American Porcupine; credit: Janice Sveda

There’s an old joke. It starts, “how do porcupines mate?” The punchline is obvious: “carefully.” That’s because the North American Porcupine has about 30,000 needle-sharp quills – and many of them stand in the way of copulation. The female porcupine’s reproductive schedule makes matters even more difficult: she’s only ready to mate during an 8-to-12 hour period, once a year. Since porcupines are solitary animals, the females will pepper the air with a fragrant pheromone to attract nearby suitors and signify that they’re in heat. What follows is usually a battle between male porcupines to mate with the female. Once a victor emerges, he stands on his hind legs and positions himself behind the female. He then sprays a stream of urine, which can reach as far as 6 feet, onto her. If she’s interested, she’ll reveal her quill-less underbelly to the male and he’ll mount her. If she’s not, the female porcupine may bite him or let out a shrill scream in his direction. Once intercourse begins, the female will prolong mating for as long as possible.

Red-Sided Garter Snakes

A small mating ball of red-sided garter snakes; credit: Chris Helzer

Before mating, red-sided garter snakes go into brumation, which can be described as the reptilian equivalent of hibernation. This period of rest is triggered by winter’s falling temperatures and waning sunlight. Mating begins shortly after the snakes awaken from brumation. The females release a pheromone which attracts hordes of nearby male suitors. This commotion creates large, wriggling “mating balls.” The male-to-female ratio of these snake orgies can be skewed, with up to 25 males per one female. The male red-sided garter, like many snakes, has “hemipenes,” or one penis on each end of its body. For copulation, the male will position and insert whichever end is closest to the female at the center of the mating ball.


The ever-colorful clownfish; credit: Nemo’s Great Uncle [Flickr]

Some might call the clownfish confused. Most of them are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning they alternate between male and female sexes during life. And who runs the clownfish world? Girls. Within their strict social hierarchy, the largest and most aggressive female is on top. If this alpha female dies or is removed from the group, then the next largest male will become a female. Below the female and next largest male on the social ladder are the non-breeding male clownfish. Once a female is replaced, each group moves up in the hierarchy. A male and female clownfish reproduce via external fertilization, wherein a sperm cell ties to an egg cell in the open water.

View a world map of critically endangered animals.

-- Map by Kristen Thometz and Evan Garcia

For information about Lincoln Park Zoo’s Wine and Wildlife events, visit their website.

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