The Expert: What I Know About … Mating
Daily Planet co-host Dan Riskin shares his knowledge of animal lust.
Photography by Paul Orenstein
Who: Dan Riskin
Age: 36 Experience: When he was in high school, his mom bought him a book about bats from the Alberta museum. After a few pages, Riskin couldn’t put Just Bats down, as he was consumed with what most of us would consider biological minutiae, like the fact that male bats have testes with a mass about eight per cent of their bodies. Years later, after completing a BSc. at the University of Alberta and a MSc. at York University (where his advisor was M. Brock Fenton, bat biologist and the author of Just Bats) Riskin earned a doctorate in zoology from Cornell University and did post doctoral work at Brown University. Before he could accept a faculty position, a TV producer learned about his enthusiasm through word-of-mouth and he was offered the opportunity to host Monsters Inside Me, a show about parasites on Discovery Science, which he continues to host. Currently, he’s also the co-host of Daily Planet, a science news show on Discovery Channel.
- “The Australian bowerbird’s nest has got this bower, sort of like those ugly wicker arches used for getting married in a field. And the males collect blue things, because they are hard to find, and they impress girls with them. So, if you had a lid from a Bic pen, or a blue thumbtack or whatever, they’ll collect them in front of their bower. He’s not saying the blue things are valuable. He’s saying: ‘I’m so good at being a bird and staying alive that I can go and waste my time on stupid blue things and I still have enough energy left to go and do other things.’ Using energy to find blue things is as vital as avoiding predators.”
- “There have been cases where people have cut off a peacock’s tail and the peacocks are healthier, they get more food, they spend less energy on flying. Everything is easier for them. But the girls [peahens] aren’t attracted to them without the tail. When they have the big tail, they pay a cost for it, but the ladies love it. The fact that it costs something to make it is kind of an accurate measurement of how much extra energy they have.”
- “Most male whales have a slit under their belly buttons and they can swing their penis from out of there and get an erection in seconds. And when it’s not sticking out, it goes right back up into the slit. The erection takes one to two seconds, and sex lasts one to 30 seconds. The testes never descend; they stay up in the body the whole time. “
- “A mallard’s penis is longer than its whole body. It can inflate in a fraction of a second, and it’s corkscrew shaped. While the female is resisting, the male can get the sperm in there quickly for rapid insemination. But if you look inside a female, her body has corkscrew shapes, but they’re going the other way. So, the female is able to block the advances of the male because she can control how much access a male has. He sticks it in there, and she has blind endings [vaginal tunnels that don’t lead to ovaries]. It might go in the wrong tube and deposit the sperm in an area nowhere near her ovaries.”
- “In bed bugs, the female doesn’t even have an opening and the male has to stab her through the abdomen to get the sperm into her. There’s research that shows the bed bug females have immune cells just under the skin in anticipation for these events. So her immune system is able to deal with the trauma, and she can move the sperm from wherever the male leaves it to where she wants it. So, there’s no reason to think the female isn’t totally down with it.”
- “Kakapo is an endangered bird from New Zealand that makes a weird booming noise and a shallow depression in the ground that reverberates the sound in an attempt to attract females. But the problem is that it attracts house cats and the house cats eat them. So, they’re almost gone because of it.”