Animal Attraction: The Science of Sex at California Academy of Science

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the California Academy of Science in San Francisco recently opened an aquarium gallery titled Animal Attraction that highlights the science behind sex.  The exhibit includes fish that change their sex, insects that eat their mates, and snails that shoot “love darts,” some of the wildest mating strategies in the animal kingdom can be viewed in the live animal displays.  Continue after the break for more details and photos provided by the California Academy of Science.

Banana slugs are hermaphrodites (both male and female), but still need a partner to mate. Photo by: Gerald and Buff Corsi, provided by the California Academy of Sciences

The exhibit contains over 18 aquarium tanks, and will demonstrate that nothing is more important in the natural world than reproductive success.  Sex, the mixing of and passing on of genes, drives evolution, and is responsible for some of the most amazing adaptations in nature.  If not for reproduction, plants wouldn’t bloom, birds wouldn’t sing, and deer wouldn’t sprout antlers.  Throughout the new display iPads will be used as labels, allowing visitors to zoom in on images, as well as watch videos of reproductive strategies and behaviors in action.

Different areas of the Animal Attraction exhibit will include:

Extreme Mating
Truth can be stranger than fiction when it comes to reproductive strategies in the animal kingdom.  When a male Ceratioid anglerfish finds a mate, he literally latches on and won’t let go.  After biting into the female, the two fuse permanently, and the male will gradually decompose until he’s nothing more than a pair of gonads.  This extreme act ensures that, when the time is right, the female has one or more mates at the ready.

The Art of Attraction
Male bower birds of Australia construct bowers—elaborate display arenas decorated with twigs, leaves, and brightly colored objects from berries to bits of plastic— to woo females with their architectural prowess, flashy dances and vocalizations.

Dangerous Sex
In some species, like the praying mantis and salmon pink birdeater spider featured in the exhibit, females will sometimes devour males before, during or after mating, a practice known as sexual cannibalism.

Creative Parenting
At the climax of courtship, male and female splashing tetras (small silver fish native to the Amazon) lock together and leap out of the water to lay and fertilize clutches of eggs on the undersides of leaves, away from the reach of predators.  At that point, mom’s job is done, and dad hangs around for another 36-72 hours, using his tail to splash water on each egg cluster at one-minute intervals, until the eggs hatch and fall into the water, at which point parental care ceases.

Admission to the California Academy of Sciences is: $29.95 for adults; $24.95 for youth ages 12 to 17, Seniors ages 65+ and students with valid ID; $19.95 for children ages 4 to 11; and free for children ages 3 and younger.  Admission fees include all exhibits and shows.  Hours are 9:30 am – 5:00 pm Monday – Saturday, and 11:00 am – 5:00 pm on Sunday.

As a scientist who studied animal behavior, I think this exhibit sounds extremely cool.  How about you?  If you’re in the San Francisco area and check it out, please leave a comment below and let us know what you think.  For more travel news and features, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.