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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Nature’s Nether Regions’: how birds, bees and all the rest do it

In “Nature’s Nether Regions,” evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen has written a witty, entertaining book about the almost infinite variety of genitalia in the natural world.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Nature’s Nether Regions: What the Sex Life of Bugs, Birds and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity and Ourselves”

by Menno Schilthuizen

Viking, 245 pp., $28.95

In recent years, niche histories have become all the rage. Name an object — from the color purple to bookshelves to eels — and someone has probably written about it. Now we have a niche history about a particular niche that everyone is familiar with, though many are loathe to discuss it, much less study it.

Fortunately, evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen has taken it upon himself to pull back the covers and reveal the underappreciated world of sex and sexual organs. In “Nature’s Nether Regions: What the Sex Live of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves,” he has written an erudite, witty (one chapter is titled “Fifty Ways to Peeve Your Lover”), and entertaining book about an aspect of biology that is often shocking and always fascinating.

Let me get a few things out of the way. First — I will attempt to make this review family friendly, but consider the topic. Second — humans are very boring, at least in regard to our relatively simple genitalia and how we mate. And, third — size rarely matters, though Schilthuizen does tell us that in that well-known era of prudery, the Victorian Charles Darwin discovered the most well endowed animal in the world. Male burrowing barnacles possess prehensile penises eight times longer than their bodies. Being stationary beings, the males use their generous genitalia as a probe to find a mate.

Returning to our staid parts, or rather than most others species’ complex reproductive organs, there’s the elephant shrew. One species’ males have a spined tip, another has a collar and a puffed-up tip, whereas in one genus, the tip is in the shape of a heart, dish, boomerang, or flower, depending upon the species. With each of these male’s shapes probably comes a corresponding female shape, though Schilthuizen writes that male chauvinism has led to far less study of female genitalia.

Males are also aided by having parts that are easier to access, especially when one is investigating minute bugs with even more private, private parts. (Reading about the research, one cannot help but be impressed with the scientists and the lengths they went to in studying their subjects, especially the one who published an IgNobel award-winning paper for homosexual necrophilia in mallards.)

In many, many animals, genitalia are the only way to distinguish one species from another. Because of this, writes Schilthuizen, “dissecting out the genitalia of previously unstudied specimens is like unwrapping Christmas presents” for taxonomists. They never know what they will find and when then do it is often met with “muffled cries of delight.” Such variation is certainly one of the most compelling, and fun to discuss, arguments for evolution.

Then there’s sex itself. In damselflies, sense organs on the penis can detect previously deposited sperm, which leads to an elaborate process of the male scooping out a previous suitor’s deposits before implanting his own. ... And don’t forget hermaphrodites, animals equipped with both male and female parts, which has led sexually to “everything the church forbids,” as one researcher tells Schilthuizen.

Straddling the line between science and prurience, Menno Schilthuizen has written an enchanting book that provides much food for thought in the laboratory and in the bedroom.

Seattle author David B. Williams’ latest book is “Cairns: Messengers in Stone” (Mountaineers Books).

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