Up Close And Personal – A Tour Of The Courtship And Mating Behaviours Of The Philadelphia Zoo’s Animals
John Bernard and Carole Price
Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia PA
Did you know that…
Bats can do it upside down?
“Ladies in waiting” cheer on mating elephants?
Eagles fall “head over heels” in love?
A pregnant polar bear fasts for 9 months?
Why do we give this tour?
1. To provide a scientific and entertaining way to look at animals.
Sex and reproduction are an important element of what an animal is. Every living creature has an overwhelming urge to breed. Breeding is a fundamental characteristic of life; it determines whether an animal is a success or a failure. In evolutionary terms, success means nothing more or less than leaving behind offspring who will survive long enough to carry on the parents’ lines. Anything less means extinction of an animal’s genetic heritage. Animals fight and die for sex. The goal of each individual is to populate the planet with its own descendants at the expense of those of its rivals. Every individual, male or female, strives to create the healthiest and sturdiest offspring–a recipe for survival. It’s a quest for immortality.
Each sex has its own strategy. Females want to find the perfect sexual partner–the gaudiest “looker”, the best hunter, the biggest male, so that her offspring get the best possible genes. Males seek the best chance of passing on their genes by mating with as many females as possible.
2. To encourage adults to come to the Zoo.
Participants in our Zoo’s adult camp program delight in our sex tour given as part of the day’s activities. Members attending the Zoo’s annual Valentine’s Day breakfast enjoy the tour as part of this fund-raising program. Other adults hear about “Up Close and Persona l” by word-of-mouth and call to schedule their friends for the tour. Over-18ers have a new, exciting reason to come to the Zoo. This tour is a great party idea!
3. To discuss how zoos play a major role in the breeding of endangered species.
Conservation is such an integral part of our Zoo’s mission. This tour gives us a chance to discuss how zoos contribute to the conservation of endangered species through breeding programs. We talk about the SSP and the importance of that organization in coordinating breeding
4. It’s a barrel of laughs!
A few guidelines:
1. Keep it light. A little “tongue in cheek” puts your group at ease.
2. Use stories about your zoo’s animals.
3. Don’t be too academic. However, accuracy is very important.
4. Have “fillers”: use trivia, jokes, curiosities, etc. as you move from one exhibit to another. For example, insect sex is fascinating; talk about these little creatures in the “dead space” as you move along.
5. Use some “props” to add a visual spark. A corkscrew and 20 ounce coke bottle, a tape measure, and an assortment of 8″ x 12″ photographs are standards in our touring bags.
Organizing the tour:
As with any tour you do…
1. Prepare carefully. Review your material before tour time. Docents at the Philadelphia Zoo usually gather an hour or so before the tour and share new and old information. The room echoes with laughter as we prepare for our presentations.
2. Decide upon your route before beginning the tour. Check to see which animals are on exhibit that day.
3. If touring with a partner, decide who will talk about which animals.
Beginning the Tour:
1. Explain to your group why this tour is given.
2. Remind the group that this tour can be somewhat graphic.
3. Stress that the purpose of the tour is to have fun!
4. Set up a few touring “rules”:
- Stay together as a group
- Feel free to join in with facts and questions
5. Be alert for any children that might approach the tour group. This is an “adults only” tour!
A few facts about specific animals:
The sexual adaptations of animals are fascinating, outrageous, odd, bizarre, and sometimes unbelievable. Every zoo’s collection is unique and a touring docent must learn about the reproductive behaviors of the animals in that collection. These are some of our favorite sexy touring animals at the Philadelphia Zoo and the courting/mating behaviors we include.
Elephants spend weeks courting. The female calls; the males compete for her.
His musth glands produce a copious flow of sticky secretion with a pungent odor; a smelly green secretion drips from his “S” shaped, 4′ 6′ penis. Bigger is better; the largest bulls get over 65% of all copulations, according to some observers. He mounts, but can’t move on his two hind legs, so a propulsion system drives his erection.
Meanwhile, a group of single females ladies in waiting–flap their ears, shake their heads, defecate and urinate while mating takes place.
Rhinos find love in a toilet. The near-sighted male follows the female’s urine trail for several days, chasing her as she runs. He whistles and sprays urine; they bite and chase, toss and butt heads, and bellow. To mate, his rear-facing, 2.5′ to 4′, purple “daffodil” penis springs forward. He stays for more than an hour, ejaculating every 10 minutes, until his full length is in the female; all four of his feet are typically off the ground.
Hippos court in water. A male must be submissive and defer to the female. During copulation, buoyancy lifts the male over the female. After ejaculation, the sperm coagulates quickly.
Lions also indulge in lots of foreplay when the female is in heat. She rubs against objects and the male and she snarls, hisses and cuffs. He sprays urine, grimaces, licks his penis, and rubs her head. The male has a penis with back-facing barbs and a bone; this induces ovulation in the female. George Schaller observed one male lion having sex 86 times in 24 hours with two females, then 62 times in the next 24 hours, for a total of 157 times in 55 hours.
Warthogs invented the term “screwing.” He has a corkscrew-shaped penis; she has grooves around her cervix. He produces up to 20 ounces of semen, ending with a plug the consistency of tapioca. The actual mating usually takes less than a minute.
Giraffes “neck.” The male tests the female for estrous by nudging her underside to get her to urinate. He lifts his forelegs before mounting, standing immobile while penetrating.
Gibbons are considered to be monogamous, but observations show that mates come and go. Their “long call” for attracting females is the loudest of all calls, at dawn when sound travels the furthest.
Orangutans are solitary and also use this long call to attract mates. He shakes branches and topples dead trees, sending out a roar that can last several minutes and be heard nearly a mile away. Females seek out the largest male.
Gorilla courtship is fun. He sniffs her armpits and genitals and may strut and beat his chest. She lies in front of him, makes suggestive pelvic movements, and may ride his back to intensify the excitement. They mount back-to-front or face-to-face. His very small “equipment” makes it difficult to distinguish between young males and females. The silverback has exclusive rights to the females, so he has 1/10 less sperm in his ejaculate than chimpanzees.
Kangaroos have unusual sex organs. She has three vaginas. His penis is behind the scrotum, facing down and back. When he ejaculates, his sperm divides into two groups for two vaginas. The fertilized egg develops to the size of a pinhead; then implantation is delayed. She can have three joeys “in progress.”
Polar bears mate in April. The female delays the implantation of the fetus until she has gained enough weight eating seals, and then dens through the winter. A pregnant polar bear eats only in the spring and fasts for about nine months while pregnant.
Bats can do it up-side down. His penis is like a gearshift. They mate in fall or winter, with sperm stored until eggs are produced in the spring. Sometimes they hibernate with their sex organs locked.
How do porcupines mate? Very carefully! She is receptive only for eight to ten hours during a mating season, but she’s very cooperative during that brief span.
Snakes have a hemipenes–a dual organ that allows him to wrap around her and “do it” from the left or right. Multiple male anacondas wrap themselves around one female, who is much bigger than they are, for up to a month, vying for the chance to breed. He has a pair of spurs for stimulating the female and wrestles other males to be “the one.” She remains passive to save her energy for nurturing eggs.
Tortoises (Galapagos and Aldabras) have a challenging balancing act. If she doesn’t cooperate by sticking out
her rear end, he marches to the front, snapping at her head to force it to retreat, causing the tail to emerge. He uses his knotty tail to stimulate her cloaca. Lots of noise is involved!
Peacocks and other flashy birds prove their worth by their fantastic feathers. The battles among males using good looks to attract choosy mates have led to extreme flamboyance. Growing and maintaining such showy but costly feathers is a sign of a healthy male. Bright colors mean a good diet, proving that he can be a good provider with skills in foraging and finding food, and freedom from parasites.
Eagles are monogamous. The male must impress the female by hunting and killing, and performing a “sky-dance” of diving and swooping. They “fall head over heels in love,” then soar through the air with talons clasped, tumbling in cartwheels up to 200 feet.
Crowned cranes are also monogamous and have a flamboyant mating dance that gets shorter every year until they reach the “Oh heck–let’s just lay the eggs” stage. They have been likened to humans!
Penguins (Humboldt) pair bond for life but will seek out a new mate if one dies. Their foreplay is ecstatic. Their heads go back and flippers flap, with loud singing. The male mounts the female’s back, their two cloacas make contact, and sperm is transferred. This is known as “making ends meet.”
A female emu wants a fat mate. She gives out a deep boom that attracts all the males in the area. Then sheselects the plumpest because he will have to tend the nest for two months, rarely eating, and then raise thechicks when they hatch. She is at leisure to recuperate from laying up to 10 eggs, each weighing about 21ounces.
Some “fillers”– A male spider will wrap up an insect in silk, give it to the female as a present, and have sex with her while she’s unwrapping the gift. A female praying mantis sometimes eats her mate after sex. A male squirrel must be submissive, acting like a baby to attract a female.
There’s so much more to talk about. Group sex (flamingos, bonobo chimps) and homosexuality (is it really, or is it a dominance issue?) are challenging topics. Are any of your animals on birth control? Do any pairs “perform” in public, much to your dismay? Are there any current SSP recommendations for breeding within your zoo’s collection? The docents who give these tours at the Philadelphia Zoo are constantly reading, learning, talking with keepers, and sharing information. We also have great fun giving “Up Close and Personal” tours.
Docent Council of the Philadelphia Zoo. “Up Close and Personal”
Benyus, Janine M. Beastly Behaviors; a Zoo Lover’s Companion. Pearson Addison Wesley, 1992.
Estes, Richard Despard. The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals. University of California Press, 1992.
Judson, Olivia. Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. Metropolitan Books, 2002.
Kingdom, Jonathon. East African Mammals, Volumes I III. University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Nature. The Triumph of Life: The Mating Game. PBS Home Video.
Sparks, John. Battle of the Sexes; the Natural History of Sex. BBC Books, 1999.
Wallace, Robert A. How They Do It. Harpercollins, 1980.
Windybank, Susan. Wild Sex; Way Beyond the Birds and the Bees. St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Whitaker, John O., Jr., and Hamilton, William J., Jr. Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell
University Press, 1998.