Science of Sex – Of Octopuses and Consequences

One of the biggest reasons I started writing the Science of Sex articles is because my best story ideas come from articles on science and nature that I’ve read and documentaries that I’ve seen. The mating habits of the plant and animal world offer the most amazing story possibilities. And the process of evolution fascinates me. Some of my best stories were inspired by plant pollination, the succession of queen bees, carnivorous plants, and preying mantises. But on Friday night I came across a couple ideas that absolutely stunned me.

We were watching the first episode of “Life,” the BBC documentary series on the struggle to survive in the natural world. The first episode looked at, among other things, the mating habits of various species. This is a subject that just screams story ideas at me, and I was enthralled by what I was watching.

But then the documentary turned to look at the consequences of mating – offspring.

Offspring. People forget, I think, that the primary purpose of sex is the survival and continuation of the species. The fact is, we are designed and programmed to reproduce; it’s one of the most basic drives we, and all other living creatures, have. Have you ever heard of a species that didn’t reproduce? No, because such a species never could have come about and even if they had, they never would have survived beyond a single generation.

But once you get past the sex, you have to deal with the results. Those offspring have to have a shot at survival for that second, third, or fourth generation to happen. “Life” looked first at the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. The mother Strawberry Poison Dart Frog will lay about 4-5 eggs, which will grow to become tadpoles on the rain forest floor. But they can’t stay on the floor once they reach a certain point, because predators will find them and eat them. What’s a mother to do? Well, in the case of this particular frog, she places each of her tadpoles on her back and carries them up into the upper reaches of the rain forest to find them a safe place to grow up. Considering how tiny this frog is and how far up she has to go, that’s nothing short of a miracle. And she doesn’t make this trip just once! No, she can only carry one tadpole up a tree per trip, and so if she has four or five tadpoles, she could travel a couple miles or more. A couple of miles of climbing for that teeny, tiny frog! I tried to imagine carrying either one of my kids anywhere on my back for a mile or more, like this frog did (and keep in mind I’ve got a much longer stride than the frog). I don’t think I could do it.

Unless I had to. Unless my children’s survival depended on it. Which in the case of the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, it does.

But that was not the most extreme case of maternal instinct that appeared in the first episode of “Life.” No, the award for Mother Who Makes the Greatest Sacrifice had to go to the female octopus. Perhaps you’ve heard about this, perhaps not. When a female octopus is ready to reproduce, she finds a den and lays thousands of eggs. Then she stays in that den, never leaving it; not even to eat. She spends the next month constantly brushing the eggs with her tentacles to keep them clean and then when it comes time to hatch, she helps the eggs out of their shells.

And then she dies.

Thousands of tiny octopuses go out into the ocean and their mother will never know how they’ll fare. She gave her all just to get them hatched and out into the world and then laid down and died. Of course, the father doesn’t fare much better. Apparently after he’s made his genetic donation to the process, he goes off and dies soon after too.

Imagine that. Imagine what life would be like if human beings faced such consequences when it came time to mate. Imagine if you were offered a choice; reproduce and die, or never mate and live a longer life. Which would you choose? Do you think if that were part of how people reproduced that we would be able to deny the urge to continue the species? And what if you got pregnant, then found out you could still survive if you had an abortion? Would you? How do you think these issues would change the society we live in?

Think about it. Look at the world around us and wonder how our lives might be different if we were like some other species. And then go write a story.

About Cynical Woman

Cartoonist, Artist, Geek, Evil Crafter, Girl Scout Troop Leader and Writer. Also, a zombie. I haven't slept in I don't know how long.
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  1. Actually, there was a recent story on Escape Pod to this effect.

    A land-dwelling species doesn’t know how it reproduces; they emerge from the sea as children and grow to adolescence on land. When they reach adulthood, they lose their consciousness and return to the sea, where they mate and produce offspring.

    Then a group of scientists learn how to prevent that loss…

    Fascinating story.

  2. Alternatively, what about the consequences of HAVING to mate *and reproduce* to prevent death.

    It could be a reason for the development of intelligence, in order to conserve resources and alleviate overcrowding. Until it all spirals out of control…

    Now go and read “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Niven and Pournelle. “The finest science fiction book about first contact with aliens ever written” according to Robert Heinlein.

  3. Steve,

    You could take that idea in MANY directions. I’m personally fascinated with breeding/fertility issues, given my own personal experience, so it’s an idea I’ve played with a lot in writing.

  4. Nobilis,

    I’ve downloaded that ep but haven’t listened to it yet. But I’m glad to see science fiction address these particular topics. There’s quite a bit of science involved in sex, dating, mating, etc., but if nobody ever talks about it or writes or hypothesizes about it, how will we ever understand it?

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