Saturday, 27 June 2009

The sex lives of scorpions

I bought my daughter the first in a series of kids' magazines about bugs. She was absolutely thrilled - but I was kind of bemused by this comment, in the section about scorpion reproduction:

In the human species, the female is sometimes taken out for dinner by the male. In some scorpion species, the male IS the dinner!


That's not something you see much of these days. Kids' books and materials usually work pretty hard not to inscribe gender roles on their readers.

Equally quaint is the phrase 'courtship', used in the magazine to protect children from the nasty reality of scorpions gettin' jiggy. My daughter was just confused by this. 'Mummy', she asked earnestly, 'Would you call sexual intercourse "courtship"?'

Ever the quick thinker, I replied, 'Um...not sure'.

This quaint word 'courtship' was only a temporary hurdle, and soon my daughter was regaling me with all the horrible, horrible details of scorpion mating habits. It was almost enough to put me off my dinner (which was not bought for me by the male of the species, if you're wondering).

8 comments:

Roving_Thundercloud said...

Courtship--really? Why not just "mating"? Why inject so much baggage into what, presumably for arthropods, is baggage-free?

The "taking out to dinner" remark is not only gendered, but anthropomorphic. And that's the real core of the issue. My family has stopped watching certain channels whose "nature documentaries" are scripted as animal soap operas etc., and I have noticed that many kids' books and magazines do the same thing: "Here's a harp seal. Her name is Emma. She's wondering where her mommy is." Often, the voice-over on a show will presume to dictate what an animal is thinking or feeling, or to "explain" its behavior. It's insulting not only to the audience but to the animals themselves. I think they only do it to increase/hold viewer interest, but I find it an annoying distraction.

Anna said...

On a similar point - I remember reading something somewhere about zoologists (?) studying the behaviour of various sorts of apes. They'd attributed various anthropomorphic meanings to the animals' behaviour (pretty typical gendered stuff - aggressive males and preening females). Feminist zoologists later came and studied the same animal behaviour, and made quite different conclusions. Doesn't mean the feminists weren't also anthropomorphising - but they were doing it differently!

Tidge said...

@ Roving_Thundercloud - I'm agreed that a frank discussion of scorpion sex should not have been shied away from, but I think that scorpions do, in fact, have quite complex mating rituals. The couple do a little/dance fight thing with one another for quite a while before, ahem, settling down to business.

The anthropomorphism thing is a tricky one. On the one hand, it can lead to distortions in biological observation. On the other hand, I do believe that many animals have feeling/emotions, and any practice that discourages the view that animals are flesh-and-blood-machines is good, I think, because it encourages empathy. But you're right, that empathy has it's own problems. It's a tough one.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't panic too much about "courtship" - it's used throughout biology. Have a look through textbooks and published articles on animal behaviour - all use "courtship". There has to be a word to describe it, pre-mating is inaccurate, as they may not be "mating" species, or courtship may not lead to mating. I guess "species-specific procedures performed in the hopes of mating" is too long. And "hopes" is probably inaccurate...

Anonymous said...

In "Bonk" by Mary Roach, she talks to zoologists(?) studying some kind of primates (not very specific, sorry, but I tend to forget details). They talked about when only men were studying them, all the mating/courtship, etc was initiated by the male and the female was completely passive. Once women entered the field, they noticed what the female was doing - often very blatant behaviour to show that she was interested in the male, but the men never considered it so never noticed it - nice girls don't do that sort of thing so it couldn't possibly happen.

Random Lurker said...

I don't see the problem with courtship. What else would you call the act of trying to attract a mate? It happens well before any sexual intercourse.

Anyway.. here's some fascinating worm porn!

Anna said...

'Courtship' comes from the human courtly love tradition, so it's a bit quaint (particularly when applied to animals. I would love to see a scorpian woo his lady with a lute). But I wasn't concerned with that so much that it wasn't clear in the mag whether it referred to pre-sex scorpian activities, or the actual getting it on of the scorpions - hence my daughter's utter confusion!

PS Thanks for the worm porn!

Jack said...

As I understand it, the "courtship" phase of scorpion reproduction usually melds neatly with the actual reproduction, as it involves a convoluted circular "dance". As part of this, the male scorpion deposits a package of sperm on the ground, and the couple them move around until the female is over the sperm, at which point she takes the sperm into her body. At least, this is how I recall it happening in _Pandinus imperator_, not sure if it's different for other species.