Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sweet Transvestite from Sepia Apama

Crossdressing is a tangled and complicated part of human history. It's a practice that's existed as long as we've worn clothes, but it's also a surprisingly common tradition in the animal world. There are plenty of possible reasons for this, from transitions between normal and breeding appearance to outright conditional hermaphroditism. But few creatures are much more... renowned for this interesting behavior than the Australian Giant Cuttlefish.

Hey sailor!
The giant cuttlefish, the largest species of its kind, is a master of camouflage. Its eyes are highly advanced, especially for an invertebrate, and it's capable of changing the color, texture and overall shape of its body on a moment's notice. This species also suffers from a remarkably skewed gender ratio: they have about eleven males hatched for every one female. Consequentially, competition among males is very high, and this rivalry has lead to the development of some peculiar reproductive tactics.

♪ One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do... ♫

In order to monopolize whatever mating opportunities they can get, male cuttlefish become very territorial in spawning season. They'll reign off the biggest chunk of reef they can find and defend it with their lives, driving off any other fellas that dare set tentacle on their turf. So how do the smaller, younger males go looking for love? Simple: they disguise themselves as females. Breeding males will waste no chances to impress the ladies, and are more or less constantly flashing in brilliant, rippling hues with the help of their HD-TV skin cells. Females (and males wanting to impersonate them) maintain their usual subdued, sandy colors, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention from predators.

He might get eaten alive by dolphins, but he's gonna look fabulous doing it.

The smaller males use their girlish figures to sneak into other males' territories and court their females. Just for perspective, the human equivalent of this behavior would be for a reedy guy to walk into a ganglord's hideou dressed in drag and hope for the best. Since giant cuttlefish are polyandrous (females mating with multiple males) this works out pretty well for everyone but the dominant suitor. All he can do is patrol his territory to the full extent of his boneless strength and keep an eye out for any suspicious goings-on in his harem. Like most cephalopods, cuttlefish will die at the end of their breeding cycle: leaving behind a new generation of bruisers, brains and dubious 'females'.

Nope, no menfolk around here. Never seen them. No idea what you're flashing about.

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