10 Most Bizarre Ways Nature Finds Love in the Wild
So you think you’ve had some strange dates? This Valentine’s Day, The Nature Conservancy compiled the top 10 most bizarre examples of love in the wild.
“Nature can get pretty wild, especially when love is in the air,” said Terry Sullivan, director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico.
Unfortunately, many of these creatures are at risk of disappearing forever because of habitat loss, climate change, and other threats.
“Here in New Mexico, the lesser prairie chicken faces an uncertain future because of loss of habitat,” said Tish McDaniel, southern short grass project director for New Mexico’s Conservancy. “As much as 90 percent of the lesser’s habitat has been lost due to fragmentation. We are out of balance.”
The lesser prairie chicken is renowned for the extraordinary dance that it performs as part of its mating ritual. To make sure these incredible animals survive in the future, The Nature Conservancy is protecting habitat on the Milnesand Prairie Preserve, the heart of the prairie chicken population. We also collaborate with partners, including landowners, ranchers and farmers, to access funding for habitat restoration projects. Plus, the conservancy, in concert with others, is restoring abandoned oil and gas roads and removing invasive shrubs and non-native trees.
“Nature is powerful, but for many animals their future depends not only on their mating prowess but on what help we give them,” McDaniel added. “If we don’t act now to protect the lands these iconic creatures call home, they may not be around for future generations to witness their spectacular mating dances.”
In an effort to raise awareness about the importance of protecting prairie chickens, the conservancy partners with the community of Milnesand, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Department and Grasslands Charitable Foundation for the 11th Annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival on April 20-22.
In addition to the incredible displays of our own lesser prairie chicken, here are 10 other bizarre mating practices from around the planet:
1) Deep sea angler fish—“Losing yourself in love”
Male anglerfish bite their mates and permanently fuse to their bodies. Over time, the male’s brain, eyes and organs dissolve until he turns into a small lump, releasing sperm whenever the female is ready to lay eggs. Scientists first thought the lumps were fins before discovering they were the males.
2) Prairie Chickens—“Strut Your Stuff”
Male prairie chickens attract females with loud “booming” noises that can be heard miles away. They also perform an elaborate dance—lowering their heads, erecting their neck feathers, inflating orange air sacks, dropping their wings and pointing their tails, all while frantically stamping their feet.
3) American Burying Beetle—“Family Oriented”
American burying beetles not only are monogamous but also raise their children together. Expectant parents bury dead birds or mice and lay eggs nearby. The parents lie on their backs and use their legs like a conveyor belt to move carcasses up to 200 times their own weight. Once hatched, larvae feed on the carcass or the parents rub their wings together to call the larvae and regurgitate meat into their mouths.
4) Freshwater mussels—“The bait and switch”
Male mussels release sperm into the water, which females capture downstream. Larvae hatch inside the females’ shells but must then attach to a fish to grow. To lure fish, mother mussels wave appendages that look like worms, crayfish or other bait. Some emit a smell of rotting flesh to attract scavenger fish. When fish approach, the mussels shoot the larvae onto the fish.
5) Prairie Vole—“Born to be Faithful”
Unlike most rodents, prairie voles are monogamous. Scientists have discovered that prairie vole faithfulness is caused by hormone receptors located in their brain’s reward centers, giving them the sense of pleasure from monogamy.
6) Bower birds—“Bachelor Pads”
Male bowers of Australia and New Guinea build large and elaborate bachelor pads on forest floors, decorated with flowers, leaves, shells and even stolen coins—anything they think will attract a mate. Some paint the walls with chewed berries, others build lawns of moss. Drab males build the flashiest pads to compensate for their dull colors.
7) Lions—“One Track Mind”
When lions mate, the coupling usually lasts only about 20 seconds. But the pair will repeat the act every 20 minutes or so—sometimes up to 40 times a day. This will continue for three to seven days straight, with the male and female neglecting to hunt or eat during the entire time.
8) Tree crickets—“Smooth talker”
Male crickets bite holes in leafs to amplifier their love songs and attract females. Once they mate, however, male sperm packets don’t fit inside the females’ bodies so a portion hangs out. The ever-ravenous females try to eat the packet before fertilization can occur. To distract her, the male sings and secretes a tasty goo from his back, feeding her until the eggs are fertilized.
9) Day Octopus—“Keep Your Distance”
Female day octopi are known to eat their partners after mating, so the males keep their distance. When a male finds a female, he extends one arm and waves. If she responds, he uses his arm to place a sperm packet under the female’s body covering. The octopi stay at an arm’s length—appearing as though they are holding hands.
10) Little Brown Bats—“Waiting for the Right Time”
Because these bats mate in the autumn—but hibernate during winter—females store sperm for seven months to delay pregnancy until springtime. While bats normally hang upside down, females stand upright to give birth and catch their babies in a membrane between their legs. Newborns cling to their mothers even during nighttime flights as they search for food.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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