Sunday, September 04, 2016

Book Review: Sex in the Sea, by Marah J. Hardt

Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep 
by Marah J. Hardt
St. Martins, 2016

If you're going to understand the ocean ecosystem and its countless living components, you have to understand how marine creatures reproduce. Some species need precise conditions that human actions increasingly interfere with; some synchronize their activities based on cues we've been unable to identify: some produce one offspring at a time, others many thousands.   

A lobster courting a female will spread his claws as if bowing and wait until the female approves him by tapping him on each shoulder with a claw: it looks weirdly like being knighted. In the actual act of mating, those lobsters are strikingly tender, while our smiling friends the dolphins may go in for gang rape. In the depths,  there are fishes whose mates are completely absorbed into their bodies: humans sometimes joke about how men are nothing but a pair of testicles, but anglerfish males are exactly that. Bone worm males are so tiny they live in the females' bodies: no dating app needed if your guy is always on call like a bacterium in your own bloodstream.  (To understand the comparative sizes,imagine if humans dispensed with external sex and male babies shrank to the size of aspirin tablets to begin their adult lives.) Ecologist Marah Hardt takes us on a trip from fish orgies to right whale threesomes, from species whose organs are practically invisible to the whale penis that chased researchers around inside a boat (I am not making that up.)

All these details are fun and fascinating, but Hardt never lets us forget they are part of a story: of the endless inventiveness of evolution, of the ever-present drive to survive, and of the interconnectedness of life in great oceans, from the microbes to the monsters.  A terrific and thought-provoking book.  

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