an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘Kangaroo Island’ Category

21 – dolphins, bonobos, sex and pleasure

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bonobos at Jacksonville zoo

I enjoyed a little boat trip off the north-east coast of Kangaroo Island recently. The owner, our guide, bounced us up and down the shoreline east of Christmas Cove to view caves in the limestone cliffs, seabirds such as wedge-tailed eagles on the cliff-tops, and above all to search for a pod of dolphins known to be using the area as a daytime resting-place.

After a few bouts of bouncing eastward and westward we were becoming skeptical, though by no means annoyed. A year before, the island, Australia’s third largest after Tasmania and Melville Island, had been ravaged by bushfires, devastating vegetation and wildlife, and seriously damaging the island’s fragile economy, not to say ecology, and we were happy to make our tiny contribution without great expectations of sighting fabulous beasties. 

So we were delighted, on heading eastward again, to spot a few fins bobbing and dipping in the water ahead. Slowing toward them, we were told there were about 25 dolphins in this pod (the term was first used by whalers in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown). I soon gave up trying to count them as identical-looking fins appeared and disappeared and vaguely discerned bodies twisted and turned just below the surface. They seemed to form pairs now and then, breaking the surface sleekly and synchronously in elegant arcs. Dolphins, I learned, spend their days lolling about near the shore in these pods after a night of hunting out at sea. They seemed aware but unconcerned about our presence, and at one time the whole group disappeared then reappeared on the other side of our boat, bobbing and slow-twirling as before. 

I was struck by a remark by our guide that dolphins are one of the few mammals that mate for fun or pleasure. Of course I made an immediate connection with bonobos, but then I wondered, what does the verb, to mate, exactly mean? We humans never describe ourselves as mating, that’s for the birds, etc. We fuck, screw, bonk, shag, hump and bone, we more coyly sleep together, and more romantically make love (not allowed for other species), but we’re way above mating.

‘Mating’ brings up two internet definitions, the action of animals coming together to breed, and copulation. So dolphins, and bonobos and humans, often come together to breed – but actually not to breed. As for copulation, that’s rarely used for humans, just as fornication is rarely used for non-humans. The latter is, of course, a term of mostly religious disapproval, and non-humans are too lowly to be worthy of moral judgment. 

Of course we do apply mating to humans with a pinch of irony, as in the mating game, and this blurs the line between humans and others, but not enough for me. The point is that dolphins and bonobos use sex, which may not be the full rumpy-pumpy (dolphins don’t even have rumps to speak of), to bond with each other, to ease tension, to have fun, as our guide said. But then, don’t all species have sex purely for pleasure, or at least because driven to do so, by sensation? Do cats, dogs, birds and flies have sex with the intention of reproducing? I don’t think so. 

Human sex is pleasurable, so I’ve heard, and I expect bonobo sex is too. Fly sex probably not, or so I thought, but I’m probably wrong. Researchers have found that male fruit flies enjoy ejaculating, and tend to consume alcohol when denied sex. I know exactly how they feel. Anyway, fruit flies have long been favourites for biological research, and more recently they’ve found that ‘a protein present in the ejaculate of male fruit flies activates long-term memory formation in the brains of their female partners’. It rather makes me wonder what effect this kind of research has on the researchers themselves, but I’m sure it’s all for the best. 

One thing is certain, cats and dogs, and I’ve had a few, feel pleasure. Cats are appallingly sensual, and I’ve probably had more sexual advances from dogs than from humans, though whether they involved pleasure I can’t be sure. Generally our understanding of non-human sex has expanded in recent decades, as our sense of our specialness in everything has receded. It’s also true that we’ve tended to look at other species with a scientific instrumentalism, that’s to say from the viewpoint of evolution, breeding, genetics and other forms of categorisation, rather from an emotional or sensory viewpoint.

When I was very young I read a book by Ernest Thompson Seton called The biography of a grizzly. This story of Wahb, a male grizzly whose family was wiped out by hunters, and who survived to become the most powerful bear in the region, before inevitable decline and death, had an unforgettable emotional impact. I’m glad I read it though, as, sentimentalised though it might’ve been, it inoculated me against the scientific tendency, now changing, to see any animal as an it, rather than he or she or dad or mum or brother or sister. So this idea of putting oneself in the paws of a grizzly or the feet of a bonobo has long been perfectly legitimate to me. 

In 2014 Jason Goldman wrote an article entitled Do animals have sex for pleasure?, in which he cited many instances of other species – bonobos of course heading the list – engaging in oral and penetrative sex ‘out of season’, when pregnancy is precluded. They include capuchin monkeys, macaques, spotted hyenas, bears, lions and fruit bats. It stands to reason that the physiological, whole-of body pleasure we derive from sex is shared by other species, and is indulged by them, and this includes what we call homosex, and masturbation. Australia’s premier science magazine, Cosmos, claimed a few years ago that some 6000 species (or was it 600?) have been observed engaging in homosexual activity, which does sound funny when talking about what we would habitually call lower life forms. 

All of these findings have had the effect, and perhaps the intention, of loosening our uptight attitudes toward sex, as well as upending our notions of human specialness. But the behaviour of bonobos, who at times look strikingly like us, is more immediately impactful than anything fruit flies or fruit bats might do. Just the other day I watched a video of bonobos in Jacksonville zoo, Florida. Two of them were lying on the ground close together, and kissing each other, on the lips, again and again. Were they male? female? one of each? Who knows, it was so beautiful to watch.  

References

Ernest Thompson Seton, The biography of a grizzly, 1900. 

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/male-fruit-flies-take-pleasure-in-having-sex-30867

https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/sex-promotes-lasting-memories-in-female-flies-66763

Bonobos at Jacksonville Zoo (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 10, 2021 at 1:31 pm

Kangaroo Island – Emu Bay’s Burgess Shale-type fossils

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Emu Bay, a lovely beach with hidden secrets. The 500 million-year-old fossils were found on the far, eastern side of the bay

Canto: We have a slightly disappointing tale to tell about Emu Bay, famous site for fossils from the so-called Cambrian explosion of some 500 million years ago.

Jacinta: Yes we went there in the naive expectation of ‘seeing something’ – not so much Cambrian-era fossils sticking out of the rocks, but a housed display, perhaps of a touristy nature, of at least photos of the many species of trilobite as well as an endemic species to Emu Bay, Anomalocaris briggsi.

Anomalocaris briggsi, named for famed Burgess shale paleontologist, Derek Briggs. Note the length, indicated by the scale

Canto: ‘Anomalocaris’ means ‘abnormal shrimp’. I recall using the term shrimp to indicate and abuse a small person, so when is a shrimp not a shrimp? I presume abnormal means rather large, as shrimps grow.

Jacinta: Well before we go into all that, let’s say that our trip was a disappointment because there was nothing on site to indicate, or celebrate, the place as one of the most important shale fossil deposits on the planet. Still, it was a nice beach. And I must say the weather here has been more than kind, so far.

Canto: Yes, after driving around for a bit in the tiny township of Emu Bay, we gave up and returned to Kingscote. On visiting the museum there, I asked the caretaker if he knew anything about Emu Bay’s fossils. Were any to be found on the island? He very much doubted it, and said that the exact location of the fossil deposits is not let out to the public – as fossil-fossickers were liable to desecrate the site, so to speak. In fact they’d already done so, it was said. Adelaide would be the most likely destination of the precious fossils, he said, or other parts unknown.

Jacinta: So, yes, in some respects a waste of time, but it was exciting to be so near the site of so many, and such old, fossil finds.

Canto: I’ve decided to return. Just to get a little closer, and fossick about.

Jacinta: Fossick – is that related to fossil?

Canto: Haha, good question – actually fossicking is probably related to fussing, but etymology, as I’ve learned from John Simpson – is often a fruitless endeavour. At least if you want to find definitive answers. But the word fossil has a much clearer etymology, ultimately from Latin fossilis, ‘something which has been dug up’.

Jacinta: But arguably the most important finding with respect to Anomalocaris was made in 2011, in Emu Bay. Six fossil finds of compound eyes belonging to Anomalocaris, which proved that it was an arthropod (as are shrimps), and that these eyes, which were 30 times more  powerful than those of trilobites, had developed very early in the evolutionary process. They dated back 515 million years! Trilobites were previously though to have the best eyes of the period!

Canto: I can see you’re impressed. In fact the Anomalocaris eye contained 16,000 lenses, which makes for pretty impressive resolution. But then, the modern  dragonfly has 28,000.

Jacinta: Hmmm, highly evolved eyes don’t seem to go with highly evolved brains. I’m sure there’s a lesson there…

artist’s impression of the sharp-eyed predator Anomalocaris, found fossilised at Emu Bay

Written by stewart henderson

April 2, 2018 at 8:05 pm