VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Your Weird Animal Questions Answered: Love in the Animal Kingdom

With spring in the air, Ask Your Weird Animal Questions turned its attention this week to animal love and all its forms.

Which insect or animal is the Don Juan of the wild kingdom?—Tristan

If there’s one animal that gets luckier more than any other, it would probably be the bonobo: They’re renowned for their vigorous mating behaviors.

A photo of a stick bug
A northern walking stick on a branch in eastern Madagascar. Photograph by Frans Lanting, Corbis

Male animals with harems, like elephant seals, are good contenders, as is the queen bee, who mates with numerous drones (and brags about it, according to the Los Angeles Times).

Marlene Zuk, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, agreed with those choices, and added stick insects to the list.

Some stick insects mate “literally for days and days,” she says. She mentioned a 1978 paper, for instance, that cites an Indian stick insect undergoing a mating ritual for 79 days—a record in the insect kingdom.

In her book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We LiveZuk writes that “the more extreme the differences between the sexes, the more exaggerated the mating system.”

Birds of paradise, whose males have elaborate plumage and an even more complicated mating ritual, are an example of this principle. (Read more about birds of paradise in National Geographic magazine.)

How quickly does a lion’s mane grow?—Arietta, United Kingdom

A lion’s mane grows at the same rate as human hair, according to Craig Packer, a 2012 National Geographic Waitt grantee and an ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

A photo of a lion
A male lion in Tanzania. Photograph by Ben Cherry, National Geographic Your Shot

But mane growth “depends on testosterone, and bad injuries cause the shutdown of testosterone, thus causing the mane to fall out.” The locks will grow back upon recovery, he said.

Packer and colleagues have studied those manes and found that they’re likely an advertisement for male quality—hence their place on this list. (Related: “Female Lions Prefer Dark-Maned Males, Study Finds.”)

For the anglerfish,  when does the actual “intercourse” begin? If it was a perpetual pleasure down to the last cell, it wouldn’t be so bad for the male fish.—bikerpilotdanny

This question came from our inaugural Ask Your Weird Animal Questions, which described how the tiny male anglerfish bites into the much larger female, eventually fusing with her body until he becomes a sperm supply for her use when she’s ready.

So, is that intercourse and could there be pleasure in it?

A photo of an anglerfish.
This female anglerfish, Caulophryne jordani, lives deep in the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph by David Shale, Nature Picture Library/ Corbis

Jonathan Balcombe, author and department chair for animal studies with the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C., said via email that “intercourse” is not quite the right word, but didn’t disallow that fish experience pleasure.

For instance, fish that are groomed by “cleaner fish” seem to enjoy the process, which removes algae and other detritus. The cleaner fish “sometimes administer extra caresses with their fins, apparently to curry favor with clients,” he said. (Related: “Cleaner Fish Wear ‘Uniforms’ to Advertise, Avoid Danger.”)

One study found that stressed fish spent more time swimming next to and being caressed by a mechanical cleaner fish than did unstressed fish, he said.

Got a question about the wild and wonderful animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.


  1. Jack Coey
    Carmichael, Ca.
    August 9, 2014, 9:15 am

    I heard that Japan’s nutlear power station was polluting. Then radiation was all over the pacific, including San Francisco. So I don’t eat fish. But now I don’t hear anything else about it. Do I eat fish or not?

  2. basheer
    Coimbatore,Tamil Nadu,India
    April 19, 2014, 10:11 am

    i want to know about animal kingdom
    how does the animal kingdom started ???

  3. Robert C Brooke
    April 17, 2014, 4:15 pm

    It is not unusual among parasitic wasps for only the females to have wings.Are there any non-hymenopterous insects with winged females and wingless males?