- Not Exactly Rocket Science
Male Frog Extracts and Fertilises Eggs From Dead Female
For a small Amazonian frog called Rhinella proboscidea, death is no impediment to sex. The males form huge mating balls in which dozens of individuals compete to fertilise a female. These competitions are so intense, and the combined males so heavy, that the poor female sometimes drowns in the struggle.
But for the males, that’s not a deal-breaker. Thiago Izzo from Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research has found that the males can force the eggs from the bodies of the deceased female, and fertilise them. It’s a unique strategy and one that effectively involves sexual reproduction with a dead partner. Izzo calls “functional necrophilia”.
R.proboscidea is a small frog that looks like a dead leaf, right down to its pointed snout, its brown colour and the central white ‘vein’ running down its back. But its camouflage breaks down when it’s time to mate. Hundreds of males gather at breeding sites for just two to three days and when any female shows up, there’s intense competition for her attention. This strategy is called “explosive breeding” and it’s as violent as it sounds. Males wrestle for mating rights, and will try to displace any rivals that have actually found a female. The result is a large mating ball with a female at its bottom. She often drowns.
In the deadpan style of academics, Izzo writes that “such occurrences are obviously detrimental to females”. You don’t say.
He has seen the aftermath of the carnage first-hand, having found several explosive breeding sites in Brazil’s Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve between 2001 and 2005. The first time, he found around 100 males and 20 dead females. The second time: 50 males and 5 dead females. But when Izzo dissected the females, he couldn’t find any eggs inside them. Where had they gone?
Izzo found the answer when he saw a male grasping the body of a dead female and rhythmically squeezing the sides of her belly. Out popped her eggs, like beads on a jelly-coated string.
Izzo saw the same behaviour again and again. On one occasion, the male pushed his dead partner around the pond, “apparently to avoid other males”. The eggs that emerge are quickly fertilised—Izzo kept an eye on them and saw that they eventually developed into embryos.
There have been many other cases of animals having sex with the dead, including several frogs and an ameiva lizard that tried to mate with a road-killed female. On Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913, George Murray Levick saw a male Adelie penguin trying to have sex with a dead female, an act of “astonishing depravity” that he removed from his paper on the penguin’s behaviour.
And of course, there’s the now legendary case of homosexual necrophilia between two mallards—one living and one dead by window. That incident led to an IgNobel award for its discoverer, the inauguration of Dead Duck Day, and an academic paper with the keywords: “homosexuality, necrophilia, non-consensual copulation, mallard”.
All of these incidents were regarded as mistakes, but the behaviour of R.proboscidea is anything but. Izzo expects that other explosive breeders—and there are many frogs that do this—might also rely on functional necrophilia.
This behaviour clearly benefits the male. He doesn’t waste the huge amount of energy that he just spent on wrestling with other suitors. It would be a wasted effort, in any case—R.proboscidea males outnumber the females by ten to one, so the odds of finding and mating with another partner are pretty low. But he doesn’t have to. He can still foster a new generation of frogs.
There might even be some benefits for the female. She too gets a post-mortem chance of passing her genes to future frogs despite the unfortunate side effect of, er, being drowned by a ball of violent males. Silver lining!
Reference: Izzo, Rodrigues, Menin, Lima & Magnusson. 2013. Functional necrophilia: a profitable anuran reproductive strategy? Journal of Natural History http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00222933.2012.724720
Hat tip to Olivia Solon for alerting me to this story