Wild Ways to Find a Mate

  • By Katherine Wu & Ari Daniel
  • Posted 02.15.18
  • NOVA

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. From necking giraffes to monogamous parasites, creatures of all shapes and sizes flirt and couple up in rather unexpected ways.

Running Time: 03:44


Wild Ways to Find a Mate

Published: February 14, 2018

Onscreen: Love is in the air…the sea…the earth…and all over and inside our bodies.

Jennifer Kotler: There are a million ways to have courtship exchanges.

Onscreen: Humans have rosy bouquets and sexy selfies, but romance looks difference across the tree of life.

Male birds-of-paradise parade their plumage to dance for females. They put even the best twerkers to shame.

Mice can serenade each other just as sweetly as their feathered friends.

Sometimes the way to a female’s heart is through her stomach. Male nursery web spiders present females with a gift of food wrapped in silk. It’s like a box of chocolates, except it’s full of insect carcasses. Sounds romantic, except he’s just trying to convince her not to eat him after mating. The stomach wants what it wants.

Giraffes are all about necking.

Kotler: Males are fighting for access to females.

Onscreen: By swinging their necks at each other. The victor then woos his girl. And timing is everything.

Kotler: A common form of foreplay is for a male giraffe to kind of bump up against a female giraffe until she urinates.

Onscreen: The male then sniffs and tastes the urine to tell if the female is ovulating.

Mating rituals take place everywhere we look. Even in bacteria.

Monika Avello: So bacteria and microbes definitely have sex.

Onscreen: The weird thing about bacterial sex is that it doesn’t make any offspring. Instead, one bacterium changes the DNA of another.

Avello: The all-encompassing definition of sex is transmitting genes from one body to another through generations of time.

Onscreen: Take two bacteria. Let’s call them A and B. When they have sex, they exchange genetic material. This is called conjugation. A carries genes encoding sex machinery while B does not. A initiates the encounter by physically touching B with a sex pilus. The sex genes transfer over, giving B the ability to initiate sex in the future. During the encounter, other genes can pass from A to B.

Avello: A and B part ways and B now is a little genetically different.

Onscreen: Which might help B survive stress from starvation, overcrowding, antibiotics.

Avello: One of the major drivers for bacterial sex is when the going gets tough.

Onscreen: When things calm down again, the ability to have sex may no longer be worth it, so B may jettison that genetic baggage and return to celibacy. With bacteria, relationships (and even the ability to have them) are temporary.

But on the more romantic side… parasitic worms, of course. Schistosomes infect over 200 million people worldwide, causing liver and bladder disease. Male and female worms live inside the human body, where they mate for life. The female nestles inside her male partner. They spend the rest of their lives spooning and churning out eggs that will continue the cycle of disease.

So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re swiping right on twerking birds or spooning your favorite parasite, remember love assumes endless forms most beautiful.



Digital Production
Katherine Wu & Ari Daniel
Editorial Review
Julia Cort
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018


Visuals & Videography
Sandeep Robert Datta
Michael Hsieh
Greg Kestin
Stephanie Muscat
Edwin Scholes
Spencer Wong
Saad Amer Design
The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
flickr | Valentina Storti
Noun Project | Chanut is Industries, Danil Polshin, David, Lucid Formation, Milan Gladiš, Road Signs, Tony Wallström, Wira
wikimedia | AngMoKio & Bryce McQuillan
Sound Effects
­Erich Jarvis, Jonathan Chabout, Karl Bates
freesound.org | aviaaroo, InspectorJ, listeningtowhales, Tito Lahaye


(main image: cats)

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