Lessons On Love And Lust From The Animal Kingdom

gerbil animal valentine lollipop

Photo: Pyza* via Flickr

Sex. Many (but not all) animals do it. Partners come together to combine their genetic material in hopes of creating a healthy next generation for passing down their genes.For humans, romance, love and sometimes Valentine’s Day can be involved, although the formula varies greatly depending on culture. Meanwhile, other animals go about it in a dizzying variety of ways.

Creatures may form pair bonds or mate promiscuously, like bonobos. Corals and fish spew their eggs and sperm out into the environment to unite there.

A panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences on Tuesday (Feb. 12) explored how lust, and sometimes love, are manifested throughout the animal kingdom, past and present.

First, figure out who's who.

Fatherhood can be complicated.

'Thanks to molecular testing, we can now genetically trace, like Maury Povich, who's the daddy,' said Danielle Lee, who studies animal behaviour and behavioural ecology at Oklahoma State University.

The results of testing: The female's social partner may not be the father of any of her young. Moderator Joshua Ginsberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society pointed out that the same phenomenon applies to humans.

The man on the birth certificate is not always the biological father, although the rates at which this happens vary widely depending on the population.

Marina Cords, a professor at Columbia University who has studied blue monkeys for 30 years, said that the female monkeys who live in harems 'seem to get pretty tired of the one guy.' She added, 'They sneak around, too.'

There's more than one way to get the girl.

Not all males within a species are created equal.

Among some animals, such as salmon and squid, some males invest more energy in acquiring the traits attractive to females.

'Others are smaller: the wimpies, if you will,' Lee said. These are the 'sneaker males,' which use their innocuous presence to their advantage to mate furtively with the females.

Don't believe in animal love at first sight.

For humans, it's easy to interpret animal interactions as evidence of love.

Cords, who studies monkeys, noted that she attempts not to attribute human characteristics to her study subjects, but 'the question is, how do you know?'

Work in psychology that looks at the behaviour of mothers and babies to assess their attachments has some applicability to nonhuman primates, she said. 'I think that is a way of measuring what I would perhaps call akin to human love,' Cords said.

'I think it has to do with attachment and a certain feeling you have when you are with someone and you miss someone when you are not with them.'

In addition to behaviour, primatologists can look at hormone levels, she said.

Simulated sex can't trump a good specimen.

Work with paleontologist Heinrich Mallison's digital model of Kentrosaurus, which resembled Stegosaurus with more spikes, has shown that the male dinosaur could not have been realistically expected to mount the female from behind, 'doggy-style.'

Instead, the results suggest the female lay on her side, Switek said. He and Mallison are now working on a related paper.

The science of dinosaur sex needs good fossil specimens, he said, citing the discovery of 50-million-year-old turtles preserved while mating. 'It would be fantastic if someone found this in dinosaurs,' he said.

Scientists' experiences and biases shape their questions.

Love is a turn-on for the human brain.

When Stephanie Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, and colleagues showed people pictures of their beloved partners and recorded their brain activity, they saw increases in the release of dopamine, a chemical signal associated with rewarding experiences, and the release of oxytocin, a signal that is associated with pair bonding and empathy.

For people who reported feeling madly in love, a part of the brain known as the angular gyrus became activated.

This region is also associated with self-representation and language, she said.

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