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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

My week in the Galápagos was as magical, as beautiful and as wondrous an encounter with nature can be. It was also all about sex. Well, procreation if you must.  Our Galápagos born guide (as they all must be by law) had many years of formal education, field research and extensive guiding behind him and we benefited greatly from his knowledge. But really, every shore excursion seemed to be a in-depth discourse by species on preparing for mating, the actual act itself and then little or no attention paid to what happens after the deed is done. Sound familiar?

Over the course of the week, we heard about territorial displays of virility,  double pronged penises,  harems of willing females,  colour changes on the body to  signal stages of sexual readiness or satiation,   the ability to keep a fertilized ovum separate while entertaining other suitors, just in case a spare was required and ejaculations that could last for up to four hours.  Certainly much more interesting than the high school biology lectures that I recall.

 Take the blue footed boobie for example:  one of three species of boobies that inhabit the Enchanted Isles (so called because the variable winds seemed to trap sailing vessels in the  Archipelago) These birds were named “boobies” by visiting sailors because they were thought to be stupid, having no fear of humans and so could be caught and killed easily.  In fact, when Darwin  made his seminal month  long  visit  to the Galapagos in 1835, he recorded  that there was so little fear among birds that he “brushed a hawk off a branch with the muzzle of my rifle”.* 

 We watched with delight one morning as the male blue footed booby elegantly danced and sang for a prospective mate.  She of course, looked every which way but at the male, who was so eager to charm, and appeared to be preparing to entertain another suitor at the same time. Like with so many other species (including our own), it’s the female that chooses.  Given that she is the one who then has to be fertilized, give birth, and then is likely to be the primary caregiver until the offspring leaves the nest, it only makes sense that she take her time to pick the right mate.  After all, she is making the selection that will ensure the survival of her species, in whatever form it has adapted to, whether  in its unique Galapagos habitat, or say, London.  

 During one morning hike, the island air was literally ringing with the sounds of would be suitors, singing, dancing, and flapping their wings, desperate to attract the attention and then of course the affection (if only for a moment) of a willing female.  We might have been at a nightclub at around midnight in an urban club district; there was so much male sartorial display.

 But my favourite feathered suitor has got to be the magnificent frigate bird. With a wing span of greater than 2 meters, he usually soars above the islands, climbing high with the thermals.  However, during the 3 month mating season, he perches for eight to ten hours a day, inflating his “gular” pouch, made brilliant red by engorged blood vessels, and waits for a potential Ms. Right to come along.  If she deigns to come by, she will spend ten minutes or so, checking him out from all angles, and then, if pleased with his table manners, bank account and financial prospects (oh sorry, wrong species), if pleased with his potential to procreate a likely survivor in life’s difficult game, she nestles her head under his wing.

 But the competition is stiff, and all of his buddies tend to hang out together on the same thorny bush. There is no gentleman’s agreement on who saw the bird first:   if a female comes by, attracted by one’s crimson pulchritudinous, the others will slowly puff themselves up, just in case. Who knows what goes through a female frigate’s mind when she is looking for a mate:  the first spotted may be Mr. Right, but the bird to the left could be Mr. Right Now.

 But you have to pity the poor fellows who have to fly with that thing distended under their beak like a giant flaming beach ball.   And since they do roost in thorny bushes, sometimes, the pouch bursts on landing. Sadly, the punctured pouch will never come back to its full crimson glory, and then it is unlikely he will attract a female.   Sort of like admitting you still live at home or play the accordion.

 After the guide made the comment about the prospect of the  thorn piercing the engorged red sack,  I observed that three men of my group shifted their feet uneasily, grinned a little at each other,  and then quickly moved down the trail to the next feathered attraction.  Peter from Sussex, (whom I fondly thought of as the “clown fish”, because he was very funny, and we could not keep him out of the water) I think made the comment to his companions that it was nothing that a Saville Row suit could not fix!  

 In contrast to the frenzy of courting and coupling on land, life at sea was an oasis of calm.  I was fortunate to spend my week touring the islands on a vintage yacht called the Grace. At one point in its long history, it had been a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis to Princess Grace and Prince Ranier, and indeed, they had spent their honeymoon onboard. With only 16 passengers and 8 crew members, it was as promised, a luxurious experience, all gleaming teak and polished brass.  (Never mind the malfunctioning air conditioning which threatened to spoil an otherwise perfect voyage)

 One gloriously sunny afternoon, late in the week, as we were all lounging on the upper decks’ wicker furniture, reading and reviewing photos, it struck me that I was in the presence of a very rare phenomenon:  multiple, multi year successful marriages.  Out of the seven couples on board, at least six  had been married for over twenty years. By my observation, it seemed that they had made a very good initial choice that continued to work and possibly even blossom over time. The couples tended to be similar in general appearance and build and had equivalent levels of attractiveness, all of which the socio-biologists would approve of.  

 Over the week, as we all became more comfortable with each other, I watched them sit closer on the love seats, drape legs over laps, and share photos or books with an arm casually wound around the other. Couples chose to sit together on deck and at dinner, and the conversations were lively and engaging: no sniping, griping or otherwise grinding your partner down. 

Now, there may have been some natural selection at work here as well:  if you choose to spend a week with your partner  in the close quarters of a boat far from home, and at great expense, the odds are good that you enjoy each other’s company. But these couples had been making that same choice every single day for at least two decades. It was a pleasure to see the rewards of well suited monogamy close at hand, and a joy to be in their warm and inclusive company. 

** If you have the inclination, I highly recommend reading “The Voyage of The Beagle” by Charles Darwin.  It is a lucid and interesting account of his five year journey as a budding  naturalist, from the perspective of  a  well educated, upper middle class man of a 19th century when England still ruled the world. It is also a first hand record of the observations that ultimately led to his theories on natural selection.  I was surprised at what an easy read it was, and how fascinating it was to literally be inside the mind of a man who would fundamentally change the way we looked

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