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8 Bizarre Facts About Animal Reproduction

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There's no rule that regulates how animals obtain the necessary genetic material to reproduce—and as a result, there is a lot of weird animal sex going on out there.


Banana slugs are huge, they eat your garden, and they leave a slimy trail as they squirm across the ground. Their method of reproduction is no more pleasant than their appearance: The scientific name for one species of banana slug is Ariolimax dolichophallus, the second part of which means “long penis,” and it’s apt. The invertebrates' penises can be 6 to 8 inches long—the entire length of the slug's body. When it's time to get down, the penises grow out of pores in the head. It isn’t unusual for the penis of one slug to get stuck inside the other during copulation; to solve this uncomfortable situation, the slug on the receiving end will eat the penis that's stuck inside it.


Sorry, dudes: The size and shape of a male animal's sperm is more related to the biology and mating practices of the female—which is why mouse sperm is longer than the sperm of the biggest land animal on Earth, the elephant.

Two major factors in sperm size include the literal length and size of the female reproductive tract and how many mating partners the females have. Mice produce big sperm because, in most species, females have a lot of partners. The grouping of sperm can help to increase its competitiveness in promiscuous animals. Accordingly, the deer mouse has sperm equipped with small hooks that helps them clump together in groups of up to 35 sperm to fight their way to the egg. Grouping sperm allows the cluster to swim in a straighter line to the egg; the ideal number is seven. Too many spermatozoa will eventually start working against each other. Meanwhile, female elephants have a very long reproductive tract (more on that below), so male elephants have evolved to produce more but smaller sperm to combat the risk of dilution. To follow the reproductive strategy of mice sperm, elephant sperm would need to be scaled up enormously to make a difference. 


Speaking of elephants: The elephant penis is so huge that males can rest on it like it’s a leg. When erect, it can weigh in at 66 pounds and can be more than 3 feet long. It’s also prehensile, which means that an elephant can move it around and even use it to scratch hard to reach places. As we mentioned, female elephants have long reproductive tracts—nearly 10 feet from start to finish—and the vagina doesn’t begin until about 4.27 feet in, so the elephant penis doesn't enter the vagina.


Male honey bee drones are infamous for extreme breeding. These bees have an internal penis—a.k.a. an endophallus—which, during copulation, is turned inside out and inserted into the queen. As he ejaculates, the drone falls back, breaking off his genitalia inside the queen and dying in the process. In theory, this sacrifice would lock his sperm inside and block out any competitors', ensuring that his genes were passed on. But unfortunately that's not what happens. As Social Insects: An Evolutionary Approach to Castes and Reproduction explains, “The next [drone] to copulate removes the mating sign [the endophallus plug] of his predecessor with the hairy ventral part of his own endophallus before he is able to insert its bulb and ejaculate the semen.” The next drone will do the same, and on and on. Of the 90 million sperm that end up in the queen's oviducts, only 7 million make it to a pouch called the spermatheca. She uses that sperm over the course of her life to fertilize eggs.

That is just the start of the story when it comes to bee sex. In species where multiple males mate with the queen, the sperm wage war with each other inside of her. (This happens in some species of ants, too.) When males get a little too violent, queens from some species will give off chemicals to calm everyone down.


The Antechinus is a mouse-like marsupial that eats insects, nests in trees, and has so much sex that it literally dies. By the time they hit 11 months old, males of this species have produced all the sperm they'll create in their short lifetimes; for the next couple of weeks, they'll go at it for up to 14 hours at a time with one female before moving on to another, over and over again, until their bodies break down. The male's fur will fall out; he'll bleed internally; he'll get gangrene and any number of other infections, ultimately dying before he reaches one year. But he's chasing tail up until the end: As Diana Fisher from the University of Queensland told National Geographic, “By the end of the mating season, physically disintegrating males may run around frantically searching for last mating opportunities. By that time, females are, not surprisingly, avoiding them.” The ladies are a little luckier, at least if they're of larger Antechinus species: Between 30 and 50 percent of them will live to produce two litters.


The wrinkly, nearly blind naked mole rat is a successful breeder despite how inept its sperm is at being sperm. Small, malformed—many have multiple heads or are shaped oddly—and deficient in the mitochondria that most mammal sperm rely on for energy, just 15 percent, max, of the naked mole rat's sperm can swim; only 1 percent can move quickly. The animals don't produce that much sperm, either. These weird quirks may be due to the fact that the queen mates with only one male, so speedy, normal sperm isn’t necessary to guarantee the continuation of the species.


Neotrogla, a fly-like insect that lives in a cave in Brazil, is the first-ever species found that has “opposite” genitalia. The females are equipped with spiny, penis-like genitalia called gynosomes, which they use to penetrate the male; then, the insects get it on for up to 70 hours as the male transfers sperm and nutrients to the female. If the two are separated during copulation, the male’s insides will be ripped out while the female remains intact.


You'd never know it by looking at them, but male gorillas have surprisingly tiny penises: They measure just 1.5 inches in length when erect. How can an animal that weighs up to 485 pounds be so humbly endowed? It's because primate mating practices are a huge factor in the evolution of the males' genitalia. When males have to compete among other males—as the sexually promiscuous bonobos do—the species' penis size is bigger. In gorilla society, male silverbacks mate with many females who are all monogamous to him. No reproductive competition equals a tiny penis. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]