Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fatal Distraction

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Fatal Distraction

Article excerpt

Sex has been the downfall of many species--and that includes German turtles and unwary praying mantises. This month, scientists have been speculating over what killed a brace of copulating turtles mid-act. Essentially, the turtles' attention seems to have been diverted, with fatal effects--an all too-common phenomenon in the natural world.

The turtles were found fossilised in a German quarry. Some 47 million years ago, the quarry was a volcanic lake-bed. It was found that six pairs of turtles had been fossilised while mating, so the smart money is on poison gas entering the water as the killer blow.

There is always a risk attached to taking your mind off the business of staying alive, which is part of the reason that the existence of sexual reproduction remains something of a mystery to biologists.

Asexual reproduction--that is to say, cloning--doesn't shuffle genes and help a species cope with parasites or a changing environment. But it does ensure that an organism's entire genome makes it through to the next generation. And it is nowhere near as dangerous as sex.

Seeking a sexual partner, whether by physical display or by singing your lungs out, risks drawing unwanted attention from predators. And the act of having sex certainly makes you vulnerable to them. In (somewhat bizarre) laboratory experiments, biologists have shown that the fish that eat small crustaceans known as copepods find it easier to snack on mating pairs. It's no wonder that copepods usually don't mate if they know that there are predators around. 'Water striders, too, suffer for sex; the female bugs are twice as likely to be eaten by a predator during copulation.

Not that males always have it easy. The male praying mantis, for instance, mates by jumping on to the female's back, gripping hard and jumping off again when the job is done. …

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