Dr. Carin Bondar is a biologist, with a twist. She specialises in animal population ecology, with an extended focus on their sexual behaviours. Dr. Bondar’s award winning shows along with her unique style and candour allow us fans to feel exceptionally vanilla in our own perversions when compared to the shocking behaviour of animals in the natural world. This is one of my favourite interviews yet, and it follows the beautiful adage of all great scientific subjects: Truth is stranger, way way stranger, than fiction ever could be.
Hi, how are you?
Hi! I’m good. How are you?
I’m great thanks…. Thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with me. I was thinking to begin with you could tell us a little about your background, who you are, where you’re from and how you became involved with science?
For sure, okay, so… I am originally from the Vancouver area, born and raised, and um, what a lot of people don’t know about me is that I actually grew up as a dancer and I moved to Europe very shortly after graduating high school. I moved to Germany and pursued a career of classical ballet. And then I just became disenchanted with the whole thing fairly quickly and I decided to come back to university in Canada. And I took up all kinds of artistic things like acting and archaeology and dance and… I just always had one biology class on the roster. I don’t even particularly know why. I didn’t even have any science in high school, nothing. But I just loved the biology class. So it wasn’t until third year that I actually declared my major. And you know, that sort of… I just kind of went with what I love, and I just became very very enamoured with the whole subject. So, I moved on to do a masters in the area of evolution and development. And then I switched gears for my PhD to more ecology and population biology. Once I got my PhD I was having kids and I just realised I really like to read and write and talk about these things. Of course, my life growing up as a performer sort of lent itself to being in front of a camera as well.
Awesome, that’s really cool. It’s inspirational that you totally changed course after doing something so different.
Yeah! Yes, it was! I had to go to university all day and then to night school all evening, because I had absolutely no science at all.
Okay, right. And then you’re kind of recent media focus is largely to do with animal mating and reproduction, but is that really just an extension of your core interest of population ecology?
Yeah, so you know, people do ask me that, “How did I get into this specific subject of…”. When I started writing and blogging I was writing and blogging about all sorts of quirky behaviours. I guess what I like most is sort of funny behaviours that I can maybe point out how humans may be similar or different. And I really like to look at biology in human behaviour. What I found was that, whenever I wrote about sex, um, people really liked it. Audiences really responded very favorably. They had so many more questions and so many more comments. There was always just so much more feedback. I sort of started going down that road a little bit more. Then very much by a wonderful, random chance occurrence… so yeah, the South African’s saw an interview that I did. Just something random about Valentine’s Day in the animal kingdom. And they really wanted to do a series about animal sex, but they didn’t have someone to write it and someone to star in it. And it was just like ridiculous because I had a series about animal sex that I had already written and wanted to star in. So we just hooked up with each other and within maybe a month-and-a-half I was on a plane to South Africa. And we shot this series. And that’s the thing that’s… it’s had fourteen million views. And the TED content producer saw it and that’s why they asked me to come to TED. It’s one of those things where one thing leads to the next and the next, and all of a sudden book deal things are flying in, and interview requests and all this… and I’m like, “Okay, I’m perfectly happy to go with that because it’s just a super fun thing to talk about”. And I find that it’s also like… sex is… everybody likes sex, everybody thinks about sex, everybody wants to be having sex. And so it’s a good way to introduce all the concepts and all kinds of things… physiology, biology, evolution, ecology… you know, tons of different things.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I was actually going to ask about some aspects of your TED talk. You introduced a range of really curious animals…
For example, the paper nautilus with the hectocotylus, or the detachable penis…
That’s such a strange creature! Could you tell us a little about that guy, and maybe why he operates in that way?
Yeah! So the brilliance about evolution is that structures have been created… or, created is maybe a bad word… but you know, structures have resulted after a long period of evolution that we don’t necessarily understand the specific parameters under which the selection pressure acted, but we do know that there are environments which humans just can’t relate to. We don’t understand. We certainly can’t live there. So, yes, the hectocotylus is a situation where the penis actually detaches from the male… This is in the paper nautilus which is a close relative of squid and octopus, of the class cephalopoda. And it uses pheromonal cues to find a female. And then it goes and attaches to the female and delivers the sperm. And ah, you know, I told this story and I thought it was very jovial and fun. But I tell you, I must have been asked about seventy-five times after my talk, “well, does it come back?”. (Laughing). And this is like all the males in the audience are like “Oh my God, does it come back?”. It does not come back! But it does regrow. So…it’s troubling!
Okay. That’s really strange. I too was going to ask if it comes back or if it regrows…
(Laughing) See! That’s what the guys want to know.
I thought that maybe it was a one shot, you better get it right kind of deal…
Yep! Well, interestingly that is a good point, because a lot of the time in the animal kingdom, you know, it’s not romantic and easy to have sex. You maybe do only get one shot at it. Look at sexual cannibalism, you know? You better deliver that sperm before she devours you, or your whole life has been for naught.
Sure! And when you come across the strange creatures and strange appendages is it kind of a situation where you are shocked yourself, or you say to your biology buddies “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe this one!”?
(Laughing) All of the above! I mean, I love these stories, and it’s kind of fun because people now knowing my background, every time they see something funny or new that has just come out in the headlines or during the research papers… “Oh, you’re going to love this”… So, it’s like I’ve got this built in set of work that is usually coming to me. I mean, I would say it takes a lot to surprise me, but the goofier, the more quirky the story the better. And luckily for me, biology is just so diverse. It’s incredible that there is always more stories to tell.
Okay, right. I was going to ask as well about your ‘Symbiosis’ video, it’s very good too. And it’s hilarious in it’s crudeness. Is that a style you adopted early in your career… to push the boundaries in the way it’s presented?
Yeah, great point… which video exactly is it that you are talking about?
(Ahem) It’s the one with the fish and the symbiosis with the sea anemone… that the fish eat and they… the excrement from the fish goes into the plants, and they’re the only fish that can live in that particular area…
Riggghhttt! Yeah, I think I generally, I like to approach storytelling, and biology storytelling in a very bold way. I don’t want to use the words ‘dumb it down’ because I don’t think I do that. But what I do is, I put things into a context like pop culture, or something relatable to humans, generally speaking, that will resonate with them. I don’t want to be that sort of scientist in a lab coat that’s sort of very elitist and whatever. I just kind of want to tell stories that people will remember. And you know, recently I did a parody of Miley Cyrus ‘Wrecking Ball’…
I saw that, it’s brilliant!
Thanks! And you know, it was just in me to do… and how much discussion did that ignite? I mean, I did so much discussion about evolution. And I think sometimes that’s what science is lacking. Somebody who’s willing to be a little crazy that way.
Right! I constantly find myself laughing out loud at your videos but also find them fascinating at the same time. I was also curious about one of your first works, ‘Why did the toad cross the road?’…
Yesssss. That was ages ago. That was just a very lucky coincidence. I happen to live right where that occurs. And a friend of mine and I, we wanted to enter a contest that Discovery World was putting on about making a 2-minute film. We did it and ended up going on to win that contest. But, what a great story! And um, I actually now know they are working to put amphibian tunnels in. And get this, this is just one of those citizen science topics because when I first moved to this city, I moved here about nine years ago. And at that time they were actually having volunteers come and pick up the toadlets, with their hands, and take them across the street. And so you’d have like, I don’t know, hundreds of these volunteers picking up these toads and taking them across the road. And the damage that people were probably doing to these poor little toads by getting whatever was on their hands, not to mention just interacting with a species that we shouldn’t be… And then it got to a point where they just closed the road and they let the toads just hop across by themselves. But this year they are actually going to be putting in amphibian tunnels so that they can get across with zero human interference, which I think is absolutely wonderful. It just goes to show sort of that the more we do the more we learn. And I think that our little film helped to bring some more publicity to that issue. It’s a big deal!
Yeah, it’s awesome. The video is great. And those tunnels sound really cool, because I was going to say that one of the take-aways from you video was that we need to learn to accommodate these different type of species. Maybe we need the road but we need to also not interfere with nature in that kind of way…
Absolutely. If we are going to go put a road in between where they need to get, then we need to be able to figure out how to give back to them.
Right. It reminds me of the story recently about Yellowstone National Park reintroducing wolves to the area, and that people sometimes don’t realise that the removal of one animal can affect the whole ecology of the entire place.
Absolutely. That is definitely without question. And I am still sometimes a little bit disgusted about the short sightedness of humans. That we continue to neglect, that that’s inevitable.
Sure, and then there is also the other side of the coin, right? That sometimes we need to manage some populations, like rodents, or those crazy raspberry ants that have taken over parts of Texas and can’t seem to be exterminated. (Excellent article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/magazine/crazy-ants.html?_r=0).
That’s right. And they are so pervasive. And even our top scientists can’t really figure out how to deal with them. It just goes to show the power of biology too. It’s humbling, and I like it.
Another animal from your work that fascinated me was the Hawaiian damselfly and how they mimic the look of their male counterparts in order to fend off unwanted male advances due to over abundant male populations. Right?
Oh it’s wonderful. And you know what, this is actually fairly common in the animal kingdom. In fact, I have a little essay in my book that is all about cross-dressing in the animal kingdom. Because you often have males that are extremely aggressive. And so it makes a lot of sense for females to appear as males so as to fend them off. But you also get the opposite thing occurring where younger and less dominant males still want to get some sexual action. And so they often will appear as females so that dominant males don’t detect that they are there. For example the Galapagos iguanas, the younger less dominant males will appear as females, sneak on to a marked male’s territory, hop on to a female and have sex with her before the large male will even notice. And then he’ll take off again (laughing).
That’s amazing as well!
I know, right? So cool!
Are there other similar adaptations that come to mind also? One funny one I liked from your videos was about the guppy fish with small moustaches. (some guppy fish have a small sprouting of hair, like a moustache, for the females pleasure!).
Ummmm. I love that one too. I love the guppy example because it’s kind of a good news example. You know, we see so many examples of sexual coercion, and things that have evolved so that one sex can torture the other sex, so that one sex can pin down, or escape from whatever the case may be. So this is just a nice little feel good thing, where he is pleasing her a little bit. The earwig story is good that way too see the TED talk above). So, I always like the ones that involve a titillation, all the crazy ones. I mean, I guess another one of my favourites, that made the TED talk, is the ‘hang out clitoral strategy’. That’s pretty amazing. The downside is, and I didn’t discuss this in the TED talk because I was kind of going for this whole girl-power kind of vibe, but, they also have to give birth through that. So the stillborn rate in hyenas is very high. Like I mean, can you imagine? Having to give birth though that? (Laughing).
Crazy. And that’s the same with elephants too right?
Yeah, that’s right.
Are there other animals like that too?
Ah, yes. Wallabies as well.
And we touched on this a little bit earlier, but in regard to the cannibalistic fornication amongst animals, I was wondering with the praying mantises or the red-backed spiders who eat their male partners… how come these animals don’t adapt physically or invent strategies to avoid being eaten?
Well, yep, that’s a good question. So, in a lot of these cases it is biologically relevant for the males to give themselves up. If they can fertilise the female and then keep her engaged, as in keep her busy eating his body while his sperm fertilises her, then biologically he has done his job. So, as silly as it sounds, being cannibalised sexually can actually be adaptive. Now, there are some some species of spiders where the males will actually cinch their bodies into kind of like a figure-8. Kind of like a belt. They’ll cinch themselves up. So, the first time they roll into the jaws of a female, she’ll puncture him but not in any of his vital organs, because he’d done this cinching thing. So usually, if they do the cinching, they get one more fertilisation out of it. Which is kind of interesting. Now, I just did another video about sexual cannibalism, because a paper that was just published talks about something called ‘aggressive spillover’. This is so interesting, and potentially maladaptive. Basically this is a characteristic of the females. So the cannibalistic female spiders, sometimes they have so much aggression… you know, you’re supposed to be aggressive towards prey species and whatever, but they have so much aggression that it actually spills over onto the males. So they end up killing and eating the males before the male has even had a chance to mate with her. So this is something again we are seeing… I mean, evolution is not perfect, right? So we are seeing a suite of behaviours that are evolving altogether and some of them are adaptive and some of them aren’t. I just that was a super interesting example of another way that things can kind of misfire. ‘Cause you don’t think of cannibalism as being adaptive, but you also don’t think of being a crazy psycho sex killer either!
Yeah, right! I thought maybe some of the males would bring something with them that the female might eat instead of them, you know?
Yeah. You know, sometimes they do, yep. But, ah, not always (laughing).
Right. And then kind of an extension of the cannibalism are the animals who engage in apophallation – eating each others penises, like the yellow slugs. I mean that’s just shocking!
It is! (laughing). Yep. And yeah, so basically… how do we describe this? So, they have this very very elaborate… so we’re talking about leopard slugs… this elaborate mating ritual. And of course since these guys are hermaphroditic they are both giving and receiving sperm at the same time. And these super long penises come out, and sometimes they just get tangled up! And so the easiest thing for them to do is just… you know… nibble it off. So from that point on whoever had theirs nibbled off, ha!, is simply a female and will then just receive sperm. There are so many wacky weird things that happen in the animal kingdom that are so strange to us, but ah, it’s because… I want to say for the most part, for humans, procreative sex is a consensual thing. You know, we enjoy it and it’s fun, it’s romantic. It’s really not like that for most of the animal kingdom. It’s not like that at all.
Yeah, I mean, that one is probably the most shocking of them all!
It seems I am talking a lot about weird male genetalia and mating behaviours. But I also loved you Human vs Animals TED talk. I wondered if you can you shine any further light on the animals who are eating certain plants or fruits as a form of contraception, isn’t that just perplexing?
That’s a great topic. I love that one. Because, I think the other thing that… humans have this misconception that sex is fun and romantic for other organisms, and it isn’t. We also have a very common misconception that we are much better than all the other animals. We’re so much more evolved so to speak. And we are more intelligent. And we do things that other animals do not do. And I feel like in some ways this might be correct, but in most ways it is not. Contraception is one of those things. Because well, twenty-million women worldwide are on the contraceptive pill. And equally as many men are happily having sex with them. So there is this massive part of the population that is basically foregoing their biological relevance, so to speak. But interestingly, we see in many primate species that they are using the power of phyto estrogenic substances in whatever food stuffs they are eating. The biggest example is the African black plum, with the Nigerian olive baboons. But, they are manipulating aspects of their sexual functioning by ingesting these compounds. And of course, biologists are always looking out for reasons as to why this might be happening. Whether it’s due to the extreme nutritional values of these kinds of foods, or perhaps if they forego one sexual cycle they will be more fertile for the next, and so on and so forth. I just think that’s probably very elitist and maybe somewhat, you know, we’re snobby. Why are we so reluctant to think that other primates who are very very similar to us, maybe don’t want to have as many babies as their bodies will allow? Maybe there are some aspects of enjoying life that they have tapped into as well. There’s this whole blanket over this entire area of research sort of, “we don’t fully understand the repercussions of the ecology”… basically saying “we don’t know”. (Laughing).
Okay. I also have a question about homosexuality amongst animals. I’d read about the existence of homosexuality in some animals that people might be surprised by, such as dolphins, bonobo chimps, even lions and penguins. I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to how that fits into Darwins survive and reproduce theory?
Yeah! I love using this example. And you know, it’s fun because I’m giving a lecture actually in a few weeks to a set of young people. 10 to 13 year olds. And their educators wanted me specifically to discuss this. Um, homosexuality is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. You would be hard-pressed to find any animal that does not engage in some kind of a homosexual activity. The big difference, of course, is that there is heterosexual activity as well. But as far as having sex, engaging in sexual activities with somebody of the same sex, oh it’s absolutely everywhere. This is one of those little secrets of biology, that’s not such a secret, but nobody really likes to talk about it. And there’s a lot of species in which… like giraffes for example, ninety percent of the sex that a giraffe has it with another male giraffe. What’s up with that, you know? There’s a lot of hypotheses that have been postulated to account for it, but I think animals are animals and sex is sex, and sometimes sex feels good. A lot of times we humans enforce all this so called morality and decided that this activity of engaging in sex with somebody of the same sex is somehow morally wrong. Where as if you look to the animal kingdom and if you look to what is “natural”, you’ll see that it is absolutely everywhere.
That’s really surprising. I’m guessing a lot of people aren’t aware of that.
Yeah! I mean it’s one of my goals to make sure that, or to sort of get these stories out there. A lot of times these kind of anti-gay platforms, you know, will say it’s not natural. I’m sorry, but if we are going to say that “natural” is what occurs in nature, then it is bloody natural! (Laughing).
Sure! And then also in regards to some dragonflies, they also copulate with the same sex. I was wondering if that might be due to a wrong turn along the evolutionary pathway as a result of the females mimicking the look of their male counterparts as we discussed earlier?
Oh! Well that’s a really good question. And there certainly is some research out there that looks at the fact that sometimes it is a mere mistake. That males have simply guessed wrong. This is not a girl, it’s a guy. But sometimes the parameters that have contributed to the evolution of a certain behaviour, one will outweigh the other. Another good example with this is New Zealand mud snails. So, a lot of them in Australia… this is a very prolific species, it’s one of these invasive species that comes and just takes over… so there’s a lot of sex going on, there’s a lot of baby-making going on. But interestingly, in these Australian populations, a lot of the females have a virus that basically castrates them. So they are totally infertile, but experiments have shown that males do not discriminate between fertile females and infertile females. They just screw whoever they can find. And so basically the evolution of a mechanism to discriminate in this case case between fertile infertile, or maybe in another case male female, it hasn’t evolved. In two minutes they are just going to go on to the next partner anyway. So, maybe in some cases it just doesn’t matter. Because if you get it wrong two times out of ten, well so be it.
Right. I guess if a preying mantis gets it wrong he just realises afterwards when his head isn’t bitten off!
(Laughing) That’s right! He’s like, “What! I’m still here! What’s going on?”.
I was also going to say that your shows are a great combination of being really fascinating and also really hilarious. They remind me a little bit of some of the Brass Eye shows which use a lot of satirical graphics and music. One of yours that I laughed really hard about was the use of the scream in the Wild Sex show of the barnacles penises being broken off by a wave. I was wondering where your comedic genius comes from?
Oh my goodness, you’re so funny, and nice! You know, I don’t know. It’s just an appreciation for… you know, I use anthropomorphism a lot. And for the most part, people that get the work that I do, they don’t have a problem with it. They think that it’s funny, they think that it’s good. So what better way to illustrate the breaking off of a penis than to just give this like horrified “Whattttttttt!!!!”. It sort of just drives home the message. Sometimes people don’t like that I use anthropomorphism as much as I do, but I think that it’s a really good teaching tool. And if I think that it’s going to contribute to the level of understanding that a person has, over a certain topic, whether it’s losing your penis or whatever else, I think there’s definitely a place for it. As long as we know what it is and we use it effectively and we use it well.
It’s brilliant. It keeps you engaged.
I’m so glad!
And from studying such a wide variety of animals and curious creatures, does it give you any reflections or epiphanies on human behaviour too? Particularly in regard to evolution?
Yeah. You know, a lot of my thinking about these sorts of topics started from when I was in a bar. Several of my girlfriends, we were out on one of these ladies nights and we were all sitting together at a table. Thirty something women. And this guy over in the corner sends over a tray full of tequila shooters. The waitress is putting these tequila shooters down, and the guy in the corner is looking like a big chino, looking all kick-ass whatever… and I was just like, “What! What is that? Is there biology behind this behaviour?”. I thought about it for a long time and when I wrote about it in my book I likened it to him being a sneaking male, or a male that has to use an alternative strategy in order to be successful with a female, because doing it the old fashioned way doesn’t work for all men. And it doesn’t work for all men, or a lot of animals. So there are various sneaking strategies out there. But yes, I liken our behaviour to nature and to animals all the time. I think that there are critical differences between human males and human females and if we’re aware of these differences then we can all get along. But it would certainly be lying to say that we can just have sex and make babies and be done with that, you know? There’s so much more going on on an emotional level that we can address or understand it.
Okay! And one last question, there are so many weird and wonderful animals, I would love to ask you about them all! But would you be able to leave us with the details of one your favourites, or the weirdest of all that you haven’t talked much about before?
So another one of my favourite stories, and this involves sea slugs. And I love sea slugs. They are so beautiful. They’re so colourful and lovely and wonderful. One of the not so beautiful ones… well, they are all hermaphroditic… because they are hermaphroditic, of course when they have sex this is one of those ones that is non simultaneous, which means that they both don’t act as males and females at the same time. So, it has to be determined when a pair couples up, which is going to be the male and which is going to be the female. So then we have this, this basically stabbing that occurs. When one individual is first to successfully stab into the other, that effectively renders him the male and the other the female. And you know, it’s a lot more work to be the female because you then have to deal with these fertilised eggs, and incubate them, and then of course hatch them and whatever else needs to come. So it’s a lot better, biologically speaking, to be the male in that case. And this happens in flatworms as well, with a term that is aptly called ‘penis fencing’. Because it literally is whoever gets that first stab in there is kind of the winner. So, flatworms are very beautiful too, they’re gorgeous and just colourful… but voracious and these horrible sex stories, you know? So yeah, that’s another one of my favourite things to talk about.
Brilliant! That’s a great note to finish on. Thanks a million for taking the time to speak with me.
Oh God, it’s my pleasure!
Wonderful. Thanks Ross. Take care. Bye.
For more from Dr. Carin Bondar you can follow her here:
Youtube: Carin Bondar Youtube
Buy her book: http://carinbondar.com/2014/02/did-you-know-i-have-a-book/
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