Science Talk

Wild Sex: Beyond the Birds and the Bees

Joy Reidenberg, comparative anatomist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, talks about her new PBS series Sex in the Wild, about the sex lives of elephants, orangutans, kangaroos and dolphins. The series debuts July 16, 2014

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky: Welcome to the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk” posted on July 15, 2014.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  On this episode…

Joy Reidenberg: So their penis actually isn’t long enough to get to the right spot because the female elephant anatomy is very unusual, as you’ll see in the show.

Steve Mirsky: There.  That got your attention.  That’s Joy Reidenberg.  She’s a comparative anatomist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and she’s one of the hosts of a new four-part PBS series called Sex in the Wild.  Each episode concentrates on the sex life of a particular interesting animal.  The series debuts Wednesday, July 16th, at 10:00 PM.  It’s part of the PBS all-science primetime Wednesday night schedule.  In addition to Reidenberg, you’ll eventually hear the voice of Beth Hoppe; she’s the chief programming executive and general manager for general audience programming at PBS.

So we don’t really have monkey business, but we do have orangutan business.

Joy Reidenberg:         Although there are some monkeys in that episode.

Steve Mirsky:    Oh, excellent.

Joy Reidenberg:         Because we actually do look at proboscis monkeys, and we look at mandrills, but we spend most of our time, of course, with the orangutans.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.  So tell me about why you chose the species you chose.

Joy Reidenberg:         So the four species that are being used to demonstrate really extremely difficult mating circumstances live in very, very different habitats, and so they were chosen because of the extreme nature of where they had to breed, as well as where they may have to give birth and raise their young.  So the four species that were chosen are the elephant, mostly because it’s such a big animal and just mating between two really large animals is a big of a paradox and how does that work?  And it’s not as simple as you might think, and we’ll get into some of those details.

Steve Mirsky:    And for anybody who doesn’t know, gestation period in an elephant…

Joy Reidenberg:         It’s long.  It’s almost 22 months, between 21 and 22 months.

Steve Mirsky:    That’s a long time to be pregnant.

Joy Reidenberg:         Very long.  [laughs]

Steve Mirsky:    Especially with an elephant.

Joy Reidenberg:         Absolutely.  But we draw some very interesting parallels about the elephant to other animals with large brains and how long their gestation periods are, because other very smart animals also have long pregnancies but not as long as the elephant.  And one of the things that we talk about, for example, is the comparison to humans.  Humans as we all know have a nine-month pregnancy, but we give birth to a baby that’s fairly helpless.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Joy Reidenberg:         That baby takes another year before it’s up and walking, so an elephant gives birth to a baby that is up and walking, who literally hits the ground running but is also a very smart animal.  So it’s basically taken that additional year and kept the baby inside to get it to the point where it could be delivered able to walk.  We deliver our babies early and then they have to acquire that ability outside the uterus, where it’s much more dangerous for them because they’re now exposed.  But our human society has created other types of protection for the baby, so it’s a very different situation with humans, but for elephants there isn’t that ability, so you have to rely on the herd itself.  So you have to be able to move with the herd, and a pregnancy that long is safer for the baby.

So now you’ve got a baby that when it’s born is actually able to move with the herd.  If it were born too early, I mean, how is an elephant gonna carry its baby around?  It’s not something like humans and they have arms that can grab the baby and walk around with it.  So their baby really has to be mobile from the moment it drops on the ground.  So that’s a very interesting comparison and how these animals have managed to have a very, very long pregnancy but the results are smart baby that can also move.

The next animal that we talk about is the orangutan, also another smart animal.  And they also have a fairly long pregnancy, but the interesting comparisons with orangutans and humans actually comes in before the pregnancy.  It comes in during the mating, because orangutans have to mate up in the air, which is a very difficult thing to do.  It’s a totally alien environment when you think about it.

Steve Mirsky:    Mate in the trees?

Joy Reidenberg:         In the trees.

Steve Mirsky:    They’re not levitating.

Joy Reidenberg:         That’s true, I should qualify.  We’re not talking about flying animals here.  [laughs]  Mating on the fly.  But they’re basically, you know, trapeze artists that are mating while they’re up swinging through the trees, and it’s a very difficult thing to do for someone like us because of course human don’t excel in holding our weight with our arms.  We excel in holding our weight with our legs.  We’re land animals, really.  But these guys are arboreal, so they have to be able to hang on to trees and still be able to perform all the functions that we would think of as being essential as a primate.

What’s really fascinating, though, is the parallel between orangutans and humans comes in with the mating behavior before the actual copulation takes place.  So we have female orangutans who are actually quite promiscuous.  And when you think about most mammals, they’re not all that promiscuous.  I mean, there are herd animals where you have the male that can mate with lots of different females.  But in orangutans it’s the female mating with a whole bunch of different males, and that’s a paradigm shift.  Most animals don’t approach that at all.  And there’s some very interesting reasons behind that; it all has to do with paternity issues and making sure that the infant is protected because nobody really knows who the father is.

Steve Mirsky:    Right, so there’s –

Joy Reidenberg:         So they’re all invested now.

Steve Mirsky:    There’s no infanticide from some –

Joy Reidenberg:         I wouldn’t say there’s no, but it’s certainly very, very limited.

Steve Mirsky:    Limited.

Joy Reidenberg:         Exactly, exactly.  You’re not gonna have the same problem that you have with lions.

Steve Mirsky:    Where the problem being that some adult male who knows that that offspring is not his will kill the offspring.

Joy Reidenberg:         Yes.  You don’t have that with orangutans.  In fact, it’s usually just the solitary mother with her baby.  The males don’t have a huge role in it, but they’re also not aggressive towards the baby, and that’s the more important feature there.

The next item on the series is kangaroos.  Now, kangaroos of course they break all the paradigms that we’re used to because they’re marsupials, so their pregnancies are completely different than what you expect, because you don’t have a gestation in a uterus for the whole time.  Instead the pregnancy takes place mostly in a pouch.  So there is a pregnancy for the first month approximately in the uterus, but then they give birth to a little tiny baby that’s like the size of a jellybean.  And I have to say I’m incredibly jealous, because there’s no labor pain involved in that.  [chuckles]  Giving birth to a jellybean, how easy would that be, you know?  I just love that.  And then it crawls around into a pouch, where you can actually check on it.  I remember I used to carry my kids around in those little snuggly patch things you’d put in front of your chest and walk around with them and you could see everything that was going on and you could take care of them.  Any need they had you knew immediately.

But that’s what a kangaroo can do, but at a much earlier stage.  So she can check inside and see what’s going on, make sure everything’s okay with that baby, and if things aren’t okay she can also interfere.  So if times get really, really bad, and I know this is kind of creepy to say, she can perform a self-abortion, because you can just reach in, get rid of that baby if times are lean and she’s gonna survive if she has to try to find food for herself and the baby.  But the plus side is that she’s got another one ready to go.  So if she gets rid of that baby, as soon as the environment changes and there’s rain and now the desert’s blooming and there’s lots of food, that next baby is ready to go.

Steve Mirsky:    So the health of the mother actually takes precedence in kangaroos?

Joy Reidenberg:         It is another interpretation of survival of the fittest in this case, right?  It’s an individual’s survival to make sure the species survives.  It’s not all about the baby surviving.  It’s about the mother surviving so that the baby is brought into the best environmental conditions so that it can survive once it’s independent of the mother, and that’s a fascinating change, you know, what we’re used to.  We’re used to, you know, a pregnancy where that baby is completely dependent on the mother and you really can’t do too much about it.  And so you’ve got to get through those lean times with the baby and oftentimes you end up with a baby that has a problem because it hasn’t gotten the right nutrition during that time period.  This is not an issue for kangaroos.  They just start over.

Steve Mirsky:    And do they have any special challenges as far as actual mating goes?

Joy Reidenberg:         The big challenge for them is fights, because the male kangaroos will fight with each other, so the dominant male, he’s the harem master, he’s the one who’s gonna get to mate with all the females.  But he’s constantly being challenged by other males that want to take his place, and we actually witnessed an episode during mating where he was challenged while he was mating.  You imagine trying to mate and fight at the same time?  It’s a pretty amazing scene, to say.  [laughs]  So it does happen.

Steve Mirsky:    I’m not gonna say anything.


Joy Reidenberg:         So I guess the answer is yes, you can imagine it.  [laughter]

Steve Mirsky:    There’s any number of jokes where the guy, coming out of the bedroom window.

Joy Reidenberg:         Oh, but this kangaroo maintains his mating.  He does not leave.  He keeps on mating and he’s fighting off the other male, so he’s a winner.

Steve Mirsky:    They’re famous for their boxing prowess.

Joy Reidenberg:         Unbelievably so and they are fun to watch.

Steve Mirsky:    And then the dolphins.

Joy Reidenberg:         And then dolphins.

Steve Mirsky:    We’ve really – I mean, we’re off land.

Joy Reidenberg:         Now we’re off into completely different – instead of going from the driest places on Earth we’ve gone to the wettest places, so another environmental extreme.  But this time the challenge is really, really much more difficult than any of the others because they have to do everything while holding their breath.  So they’ve got to mate while holding their breath underwater.  They’ve got to give birth to babies; they’d have to hold their breath underwater.  The babies have to be able to nurse while holding their breath underwater.  So the whole gig is really geared towards surviving as an air-breathing mammal in a very hostile environment, the ocean.  And of course there’s other challenges as well – dealing with issues of predators and not having bushes to hide behind, so to speak.  It’s a very open and very different kind of environment, and we do talk about some of those pressures as well, but that’s all part of selection, isn’t it?

So it’s not only about dolphins – that episode also brings in whales, and we do have some scenes there with grey whales, so we will talk a little bit about whales and some of the similarities between dolphins and whales, of course all being cetaceans.  And we even have some comparisons to manatees, which is the other fully aquatic mammal that has to deal with, again, similar environmental constraints.

Steve Mirsky:    Speaking of whales, I realize this has nothing to do with this program, but I have you here, I’ve got to talk to you about your plane right and your…

Joy Reidenberg:         [laughs] Let me guess, you read the article in the Times.

Steve Mirsky:    That my friend Carl Zimmer wrote.

Joy Reidenberg:         Oh, yes.

Steve Mirsky:    Why don’t you talk about why you smelled so bad that you had to lie on the plane to everybody about what was going on?

Joy Reidenberg:         Oh, and see the lucky thing is I got the flight attendants to lie for me.  [chuckles]  Actually, so I’m a scientist.  I study comparative anatomy, which means I study lots of different types of animals, and I compare the structure of their bodies to each other.

Steve Mirsky:    And do you teach anatomy to medical students?

Joy Reidenberg:         I also do.  I also teach at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, so I’m focusing my teaching on human anatomy but it’s always with the perspective of what makes humans special or what makes us very similar to other animals.  So that’s always in the back of my mind when I talk about different parts of the body, I’m always curious, “Is this something that’s unique or is this something that’s pretty generalizable among all mammals?”  When I do my research I’m looking in particular for the animals with the most outrageous adaptations.  I want to look at animals that are adapted to extreme environments because I’m interested in learning about those adaptations and then trying to do biomimicry, which means trying to copy those adaptations and bring it back to the human world, either as a treatment for a disease that mimics some of those environmental extremes, or as a protective device for people who have to live and work in some of those environmental extremes – for example, deep sea diving, and what we can learn from animals like whales.

And so one of the most extreme environments that I have to deal with, of course, is living in the ocean, because you not only have to deal with living underwater but you also have to deal with pressure changes, and that’s where my fascination lies.  So most of my research is focused on marine mammals, so as a whale expert my field research is to go out to the field sites where whale carcasses strand and dissect them on the site, because I can’t bring them back to the lab, they’re too big.  I can’t imagine trying to fit a 65-foot whale into the freight elevator.  That’s just not gonna happen, so I have to take my laboratory to the whale and when I do that I have to cut into the whale to get to the parts of the whale that I need to study, which literally means dissecting my way into the middle of a carcass and then working from inside the carcass.  Well, not all carcasses are nice and fresh and smell like the grocery aisle of the supermarket where the butcher cuts the meat.  Some of them smell like they’ve been on the beach for a few days, ‘cause that’s exactly what they’ve done.  They’ve been on the beach for a few days and if you can imagine what a spoiled roast beef sandwich smells like, or spoiled milk…

Steve Mirsky:    And get inside it?

Joy Reidenberg:         And now make it 65 feet long.  [laughing]  It’s an odor that you are very thankful that we don’t have smell-o-vision for.  So after dissecting that whale on the beach for about two days, I had to fly back from Ireland with all of my gear.  I felt bad for the people who were checking things down below in the airplane, but I’d washed.  I took several showers and baths.  I threw away all of the clothing that I’d brought and worn on the site.  I had fresh clothing I was wearing home, but my body was reeking of the odor because the oils of the whale actually penetrated my skin and got under the skin layer and so the only way that – you can’t scrub that off with soap.  The only way that comes out is time.  It just has to evaporate out.

So when I got on the plane, you know what – it’s fine outside, but when you’re in a closed little box like a plane where the air keeps recirculating, it’s not going away very fast.  So luckily for me there aren’t a huge number of people that like to fly back and forth between New York and Ireland in January on a weekday, so it wasn’t a very full flight.  So the flight attendants, upon recognizing what had happened ‘cause we did tell them the story – and it was all over the news, so they knew about it anyway – they put us in the last seats of the plane, right next to the bathroom, and moved everyone else up to the front of the plane, and those who they could they moved even into first class or business class, and they just said that we’re having a little malfunction with the bathrooms.  Use the ones in the front, and everyone left us alone.  It was really nice.  [laughing]

Steve Mirsky:    That’s great.  So – And we know what your favorite episode of Seinfeld is.

Joy Reidenberg:         Oh, yes.  That was actually really fun.  I got interviewed for that to find out whether or not it really could happen:  could a golf ball really clog a whale’s nostril?  [chuckling]  And cause it to be in distress, and it was actually a very funny exercise in anatomy to study the size of a golf ball versus the size of a whale’s nostril, and the answer is, yes, a golf ball could fit in there but, no, it probably wouldn’t stay there.  It would probably get blown right back out again with the next breath.  I can’t imagine any whale that would keep it there for any length of time any more than you would probably keep a pea in your throat if you started to choke on it.

Beth Hoppe:         I want to mention on the whales, though, that Joy’s been on PBS before ‘cause there was the series Inside Nature’s Giants, which include – you were filming when –

Joy Reidenberg:         Well, actually, that whale that we’re talking about, the very specific one that was in Ireland was the whale that was filmed for Inside Nature’s Giants.  It was a fin whale, and it was actually the very first episode that we had filmed for Inside Nature’s Giants.  That’s how I got involved in the series.  They needed a whale biologist, and so at the very last minute I got a call to fly out to Ireland, with no advance notice, basically “Can you get to the airport in time and bring all your gear?” which was a challenge…  [chuckles]  as you can imagine trying to get on a flight at the last minute and still trying to check all of your knives down below.  So it’s a very long story, a very funny story, but I did actually make it out there and after successfully showing them that I could teach people about whale anatomy they decided to make me the comparative anatomist for the series.

Steve Mirsky:    Did they call you when they – before they actually shot the Seinfeld or afterwards people were asking you?

Joy Reidenberg:         Oh, it was afterwards.  I think that Seinfeld episode aired before people knew who I was on television.

Steve Mirsky:    About 20 years ago.  The series does not go into the weird kind of sexual apparatus that some organisms have, like barnacles or even snakes or other reptiles, which have, what are they called?

Joy Reidenberg:         Hemipenes, yeah.  No, it really focuses just on those four species: the elephant, the orangutan, the kangaroo and dolphins, or dolphins and whales but mostly dolphins.

Beth Hoppe:         Stay tuned.  There could be future seasons.

Joy Reidenberg:         Yes.  People like it.  There’s a lot more that we can explore, but we do have a few guest appearances of other interesting penises on the show.

Steve Mirsky:    Excellent.

Joy Reidenberg:         For example, in the koala episode, there is a sequence where you get to see a koala penis, and koalas and echidnas also have very interesting-looking penises.

Steve Mirsky:    There’s like four little –

Joy Reidenberg:         Four heads, but they don’t all activate at once.  Only one of them gets really big, but which one it is kind of a gamble, right?  They’re spares.

Steve Mirsky:    They all work?

Joy Reidenberg:         I presume so, because I don’t think nature makes too many decorations that are hidden.  Most decorations are on the outside where you can see them.

Steve Mirsky:    Right, right.

Joy Reidenberg:         So I would assume that they all do.  It’s in the kangaroo episode because the kangaroo episode deals with marsupials and the koala is a marsupial but the echidna is not, but it is an interesting animal that lives out in the Australian desert area, and so it’s another very interesting animal.  It’s an egg layer, actually, but nevertheless it has a very interesting anatomy, and so that’s brought in as well.  So it does focus a bit on weird Australian animals.  But you would be amazed at some of what we think of as more common animals that have very interesting anatomies –

Steve Mirsky:    Like ducks.

Joy Reidenberg:         Ducks are fascinating, and ducks are different than other birds, too.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Joy Reidenberg:         So ducks actually have a apparatus.  For lack of a better word we might call it a penis, but it isn’t a true penis.

Steve Mirsky:    ‘Cause it’s a bird.  They don’t usually – they have cloacas, usually.

Joy Reidenberg:         They do, they do.  And so a penis, as defined anatomically, is a structure that erects with blood and it may or may not have a bone in it, depending on the species.  Some species do, some species do not.  But the tissues are all homologous; so if you look at one mammal and compare it to another animal, the origin of where those tissues come from in the embryo are exactly the same.  When you look at a duck it’s completely different.  This organ does not erect with blood; it actually erects with lymph fluid.  So this is the same fluid that in us you might see when you have edema, when you have a swelling on the outside and your skin gets all tight.  That’s not blood, that’s a clear fluid.  And that fluid is what they use to pump up this organ.

Steve Mirsky:    Which is corkscrew-shaped.

Joy Reidenberg:         It’s corkscrew and interestingly, although I haven’t examined it myself, my understanding is that it’s corkscrewed in the opposite direction from the female, which makes it difficult for the male to intertwine perfectly with the female, so it gives her some advantage in selecting the male who’s got a little more flexibility in his abilities.  But what is fascinating is how quickly they can erect this organ and how large it is relative to the size of the animal.  So we’re talking about an organ that is almost as long as the duck is.  That’s a pretty massive structure.

Steve Mirsky:    So because it comes from a completely different developmental origin and fills with a different fluid, is that an example of convergent evolution in a way?

Joy Reidenberg:         Yes, I think it is.  Because it’s certainly not a homologous structure, so we’re not talking about a derived version of a structure that already exists.  This is something else that has become similar in its function but comes from a different tissue.  Kind of like looking at insect wings and comparing them to bat wings.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Joy Reidenberg:         They both are used for flying, they come from different tissues; whereas bat wings and bird wings come from similar tissues.  They both have arms in them, for example.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.  So do you ever take any of this back to your medical students and just for kicks talk to them about it?

Joy Reidenberg:         I always talk to them about comparative anatomy and I always talk about evolution to my students, because I think it’s important for them to have a perspective on what features they’re studying in the human are derived and special, and what features are more similar to other mammals.  And the biggest overlap for them in understanding comparative anatomy are the students that are interested in research, because a lot of the research that’s done, a lot of medical research, works on animals that are very similar to humans.  So if you want to test out a new drug, you need an animal that’s going to behave like a human.  If you want to test a new surgery, you need an animal that looks somewhat like a human, at least in the area that you’re doing the surgery. 

And so knowing the differences between the animals is really critically important in planning out those kinds of projects.  So for example if you wanted to do a study on developing gallstones, you wouldn’t use a rat because rats don’t have a gall bladder.  That’s an important thing to know, you know?

Steve Mirsky:    “This stuff works perfectly!”

Joy Reidenberg:         [laughs] Yes, great, it’s so good it never developed any gallstones.  Well, but they never had a gall bladder, so of course it worked.  But that’s very different from the kind of work that I do, but I think it’s important to have that perspective.  My perspective is exactly the opposite – I want animals that don’t behave at all like a human, so they call us the weird animal lab, and so a lot of medical students want to do research in our lab because they get a chance to look at some very strange things that are not at all like the human condition and therefore can learn something new, and perhaps that can be inspiring and bring back a new way of thinking of something, a new treatment, a new device.  You always learn from nature, and that’s one of the fun things about being a scientist is learning from nature.  And it’s one of the reasons I got so involved not only in science but in doing these educational series, because I think it’s really important to express how much fun it is to do science, to inspire other people to get into that field, particularly young people.

I think science is an incredibly interesting field because you never know where you’re gonna go.  It’s one of those fields where you can ask any question in the world and you get to design the experiment to answer it.  It’s the most creative field I could think of in that sense.  But the other thing that’s very important is education, and I think one of the things that PBS does really well is educational outreach because PBS, unlike all the other channels that you will see nature shows on, has the educational content in there.  It’s not just, “Wow!  Here’s a pretty picture,” which is great, but here’s what’s behind that pretty picture and why it looks the way it does.  Here’s the science that supports why this is happening.

And I think as a scientist it’s our job to get involved in public education and do that kind of outreach, whether it’s on television, whether it’s through other various media, whether it’s just through publications, whether it’s going to school systems and talking to children.  Scientists have to be the ones that communicate it to the public because we’re the ones that understand it, and if we just keep publishing it in the scientific journals, in that very obscure language of science that only scientists can read, no one’s gonna ever know what our discoveries are about.  And I’m very excited about this series in particular because behind all of the sex in the wild is actually a very important conservation message.  ‘Cause sex in the wild isn’t, you know – the title might imply that it’s all about animal pornography but it’s really not.  It’s about the whole life cycle.  It’s about selecting mates.  It’s about the copulation – that will be in there, of course.  But then it’s also about the pregnancy, the birth, the delivery of the animal, and then the nursing and how it fares in the environment once it’s born.

But the constant message behind all of that is equally important, because if you want to conserve a species the most important thing is to make sure is that it makes the next generation.  And we all know that you have to conserve the habitat for the animals to live it, and that implies you have to conserve the food resources that they need in order to survive.  But very few people have really thought about what it takes to make sure that the mating is successful.  In order to have successful mating we have to understand what their needs are for successful mating.  If we don’t know what they are, then we can’t protect those opportunities for them to have sex in the wild.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah, it’s ironic because there’s so much trouble with certain species that are in captivity to get them to mate, but we never think about our effect on the environment and how that problem could then be transferred out into the –

Joy Reidenberg:         Absolutely.  I’ll give you an example of that.  There’s actually two examples that we talk about in Sex in the Wild.  One of them is dealing with the elephants.  Elephants are endangered animals, they’re protected animals, but when they live in a crowded habitat, a small area, they can overwhelm that habitat.  And so they are often culling programs in place to select out certain individuals from the population.  That can be really devastating on the elephant population because they have very close-knit herd relationships that can be disrupted by taking an individual out.  It’s better to keep them from having too many babies rather than pull out an individual and kill it.

So elephant contraception is a really important thing to have, and to be able to manage and to have the flexibility to know when to turn it on, when to turn it off.  In order to do that we have to understand their mating habits.  If you take the big bull elephant out of the population, because he’s making too many babies, all of a sudden these junior bulls mature too early.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Joy Reidenberg:         And they’re not able to physically do the mating.  They’re actually not large enough, so their penis actually isn’t long enough to get to the right spot because the female elephant anatomy is very unusual, as you’ll see in the show.  It’s not where you expect it to be, and if the male isn’t endowed with a long enough penis it’s not gonna be successful.  So we now know that it’s not smart to take out the biggest bull elephant because then you’ll have no babies, which is also not a good way to deal with elephant management, population management.  You need instead to manage when he can mate or manage which of the bull males is going to mate, but not take out necessarily the best producer and leave all these junior ones that will then start trying to mate.

Steve Mirsky:    You can only have that kind of viewpoint if you collect enough data.

Joy Reidenberg:         Exactly.  Dolphins is another example.  Dolphins that we studied, dusky dolphins, mate at high speed.  These animals are swimming at about 45 miles an hour, and that’s the speed that they’re mating at.  You’re not gonna see that in captivity because no dolphin is gonna be able to swim 45 miles an hour in a swimming pool.

Steve Mirsky:    Without hitting the wall, yeah.

Joy Reidenberg:         So those are animals that if you did choose to keep in captivity, you’d have to do artificial insemination with because the mating in the wild wouldn’t be the normal type.  They may actually still mate.  The males will have a much easier time if the female can’t swim fast but she won’t have the availability of choice, you know, mate selection anymore, because her ability to swim fast is how she tests the males to see who can keep up with her and mate with her upside down.  That’s not gonna happen in a captive situation, and so you’re gonna get very different group dynamics from the mating that would ensue, but understanding that allows you to manage that.

Beth Hoppe:         I wanted to mention our PBS learning media, which is where we actually have purpose-built pieces that sometimes are from the show, sometimes were built alongside the show for teachers and we currently have 1.5 million teachers in America signed up for learning media.  So we’re taking it right into the classrooms, and they’re curriculum based modules that are created for specifically for educational use.  But education underpins everything we do.

Steve Mirsky:    So the teachers can just download this for free and use it in the classroom?

Joy Reidenberg:         And I think that’s especially important –

Beth Hoppe:         Yes.

Joy Reidenberg:         - because a lot of children are not gonna see this show because of the hour that it’s on.  It’s on at 10:00 because it does have mating scenes in it, and I do understand some people are not comfortable with letting their children watch that.  Others may be perfectly comfortable.  I personally am very comfortable with children watching it.  I think it’s a lot better than talking about birds and bees, who are not endowed with the right parts to demonstrate teaching your children about that type of anatomy.  But I think it’s so important to let the teachers have the ability to judiciously choose the type of content that they want to show children in the classroom from programs like this that have a lot of educational content, even about a subject that we think of as just common biology. 

Everyone should know it, but not everybody feels comfortable talking about it.  But biology teachers will talk about it, and this will give them the tools to do that in a way that shouldn’t be upsetting because we’re not talking about graphic images necessarily, we’re talking about just the biology behind it, how it works.  I think it’s so important for children to know that.  I’d much rather see them watching animals mating than to see violence on TV.  How about a James Bond flick where you’ve got, you know, women who are basically sex objects and lots of gun violence and punching violence and stuff like that and blowing up bombs and things.  I’d much rather see animals mating.  I’d much rather my children see that.

Steve Mirsky:    In addition to the series Sex in the Wild on Wednesdays on PBS, look for Nova, of course; the series Nature, Secrets of the Dead; another new series called Operation Maneater, which looks at animals that still have a taste for people.  That premieres on August 27th, and another new series hosted by science writer Steven Johnson called How We Got to Now, about the steps that got us to the modern world.  That series starts on October 15th with an episode called “Clean,” about the development of modern sewer systems and sanitation.  They’re why you’re probably not sick right now.

By the way, we did not receive any promotional consideration for telling you about the PBS programming.  We just like them and especially their science offerings.

That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our Web site,, where you can find the slide show on the engineering achievement that also gave us what is arguably the world’s greatest palindrome: that’s the Panama Canal.  The 100th anniversary of the official opening of the canal is next month, so check that out.  And follow us on Twitter, where you’ll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site.  Our Twitter is @sciam, S-C-I-A-M.  For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

[End of Audio]

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