Cock. Penis. Dick. Wang. Whatever you call the male appendage, this is an area of insect physiology where things get pretty wild. Or perhaps more accurately, wilder than the usual.
But let’s start scientifically-correct: in the insect world the closest thing to the human penis is more properly known as the aedeagus. But ‘closest thing’ does not in any way imply great similarity. It’s actually part of the insect abdomen, and the external part of the male’s sexual weaponry is a phallus of extremely various flaps, hairs and hooks. Still with this? Good.
When it comes to shape, describing the situation as complex doesn’t get anywhere near to doing it justice. Menno Schilthuizen’s account of genital evolution is a comprehensive overview (far more so than can be included here), highlighting a wonderfully alien world of ‘prongs’, ‘pegs’, ‘springs’ and ‘titillators’. If insects are purely in it for the passing of genes, they could’ve fooled us.
There’s so much to say about the morphology of aphid appendages alone that the main journal paper on the matter comes in two parts. For relatively small insects, aphids come with a significant package – “relatively large and discernible under a hand lens or even with the naked eye”. The paper includes such descriptive gems as “a few circular pits distributed mostly in its medial part. Sclerotized arms with distal part rather long and thin, and proximal part shorter and wider. Aedeagus long, inverted question mark-shaped.” And that’s just the aphid Drepanosiphumplatanoidis. Big name, big aedeagus.
Smutty jokes aside (but not for long), in insect taxonomy, male sexual organs can be extremely helpful in establishing exactly what species you’re dealing with. In fact, it can often be the only way of making a certain identification. So far, so useful, to us as well as them. But how do insects actually, you know, do it? Again, this is no simple matter.
The ‘lock and key hypothesis’ is an idea that has persisted in entomology – and, naturally,
argued over. It asserts that male and female sexual organs of an insect species, whatever wacky shape and size they are, have evolved to only be the exact ‘fit’ for each other. The theory, however, has been largely discredited over the years.
What’s abundantly clear is that sex is rarely anything straightforward in the insect world – there’s little by way of proxy for missionary. Dragonflies are a good go-to example for the messiness of it all – so much so that their sexual antics inspired a New York Times article, in which the slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta) is described as having a “fairly rococo penis”. Sex begins with what constitutes foreplay – the male grabbing the female at the back of the head – while dragonfly dongs are not just about depositing sperm, they’re also about removing that of rivals. Naturally, females are tooled up to stop that happening, if at all possible.
The mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) also has a dick geared up to dispatch the genes of its rivals. In the words of this paper on the matter, it “comprises a central shaft enclosed within a flexible sheath covered with chitinous spines. As the shaft extends within the female’s copulatory bursa the sheath and its covering of spines rolls back producing a `scouring’ effect.” Lovely.
With schlongs often more resembling torture implements, things can get even more brutal. Males of the bruchid beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus) actually damage the female’s reproductive tract during sex, and females, understandably, kick them for it. If she doesn’t kick, injuries tend to be worse after a longer sex session. Yet according to this paper, the carnage is not a deliberate act of destruction by the males, just an unfortunate by-product of them evolving weapons that are literally weapons. Why, it’s not yet known, but the theory is its all about being able to cling tightly to their ‘loved’ one.
If this blog puts insects in danger of being adopted by the alt-right as beacons of ultra- masculinity, hold that thought right there. Transgression of gender norms is happening in Brazilian caves, don’t you know. In the louse genus Neotrogla, it’s the females with the penis-like protrusion, and the guys with a chamber comparable to a vagina. A very niche re-definition of ‘wearing the trousers’ for sure, and in marked contrast to the species of beetles and dragonflies using their phallus to screw over their rivals with a bit of sperm scooping, our ‘macho’ cave-based females are using theirs to collect it up. Through all the kink and horror, life finds a way.
So there, a piece about insect nobs has been published on the Entomology MSc blog. I can only hope this comes up in the exams in March, making things a little less hard. Too much smut? Probably.