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Transsexual Bug's Sick Sex

Transsexual Bug's Sick Sex

By Mark Steer

Bat bugs. They sound nasty and they are nasty. They’re nasty to the bats whose blood they suck blood. They’re nasty to any humans they find for similar reasons. They’re even nasty to their own kind by stabbing each other with their sabre-like penises. Yep, you did read that right – they stab each other with their willies. And the problem is so bad that bat bugs of both sexes are turning transsexual to protect themselves.

In what could be the most extreme case of transsexualism ever discovered, scientists have discovered that male African bat bugs sport female genitalia, and some females have genitalia that mimic the male’s version of the female bits - as well as their own redundant vagina. This is one messed up species.

Bat bugs, and their relatives the bed bugs, are renowned among entomologists for their gruesome and bizarre method of reproduction. Males never use the vagina, instead piercing the female’s abdomen and inseminating directly into the blood, from where the sperm swim to the ovaries. The process is called ‘traumatic insemination’, for obvious reasons.

In response to the males’ utter disregard for romance, foreplay or even permission, female bat bugs have evolved structures – known as paragenitals – which guide the males’ sharp schlongs into spongy protective tissue full of immune cells.

Recent research by Klaus Reinhardt at the University of Sheffield, UK reported in New Scientist has found that it’s not just the females who have these protective genitals; the males have got them as well.

But why, you might ask, would a male need protection? Surely he’s not going to stab himself? And indeed you’d be right; however, males are also in danger of being set upon by their fellow dagger-dicks.

If that isn’t strange enough, when the team looked at 43 preserved female bat bugs, they found that 84 per cent had male versions of the defence genitals. Females with this male version of female genitals had less scarring due to penetration than the other females.

“This is what we think might have happened,” says Reinhardt. “Males started getting nobbled by other males, so they evolved the female defensive genitals. As this reduced the amount of penis damage they were getting, females evolved the male version of the female genitals … It’s a spectacular example of evolution through sexual conflict.”

One theory about why males might have the protective genitals is that they actually entice other males to mate with them so that can feed off the sperm, and diminish the reproductive capacity of their competitors.

People, be glad you’re not bat bug.

This work will appear in a future issue of The American Naturalist. However, you don't have to wait for more weird science on the Null, we've got it by the bucket load:

- Weird - Jellyfish grow twelve heads
- Interesting - 'No fear' pill on the way
- Brave - The first investigation into dragon psychology
- Tetchy - Space station 'too messy' says astronaut
Image: US Gov/N

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18 Sep 2010
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