Love life and romance are on my mind as I am writing this article on Valentine’s day.
Granted, I take a little issue with the grand commercialization of Valentine’s Day and I think that there are two different agendas muddled into one.
On one hand, there is the connotation of Valentine’s with love and romance between two joined individuals meant to focus attention on the spiritual and sexual needs within such special relationships.
On the other hand, there is a sense of the greater love that we spread to those we care about and to people who deserve to be on the receiving end of kindness, which should really be everyone.
So, we have come to celebrate Valentine’s in an odd combination of the bouquet of flowers the husband gives his woman of many years, to the premanufactured note cards that little kids send to everyone in their classroom.
I felt compelled to look up why we call this day Valentine’s, and where and when it started. Though much of the origin story has been lost over time, it apparently goes back to the Middle Ages and the Catholic church.
There are several accounts of men by the name of Valentine or Valentinus who did heroic deeds in the name of love, but the stories differ.
In two different versions of one storyline, a priest by the name of Valentinus disobeyed the order of Emperor Claudius II, who had decided that single men make better soldiers and forbid his soldiers to marry. Valentinus would secretly marry couples until his deeds were discovered and he was put to death.
In another story, Valentinus was imprisoned by the Romans, but managed to send a note to a young lady he had fallen in love with, and who allegedly was his jailor’s daughter. The note closed with the words “from your Valentine,” which is to explain the phrase we still use today.
Unrelated to my Valentine research, I also learned a new word this morning: The word is “carnal.”
It is one of those many words people use to say something without getting to the point. Interestingly, human sex and intercourse are obviously topics that are essential for the survival of the species and the mental health of individuals, but very rarely talked about and even circumnavigated in our language.
As a biologist, the study of animal propagation and mating behaviors is second nature to my work. Like a nurse gets desensitized with regard to dealing with the natural excretions of the human body, so do biologists shed the awkwardness of talking about mating, egg extrusion, fertilization and sex organs, especially when it refers to animals like, for example, fish or crabs.
One of the most interesting marine animals with regards to the biology of their sex life are shrimp.
It is somewhat counterintuitive, as it is hard to imagine cuddling up with any creature that features an exoskeleton. In crabs, we don’t use the term cuddling — we call it grasping.
Closely related to crabs, biologically, are barnacles. You can imagine a little shrimp sitting inside a tent-like shell with a sliding door at the top performing an eternal headstand and kicking its legs out of the opening to catch food, which just happens to float by.
Add to this interesting lifestyle that barnacles are sessile: As a young larvae, they decide on a place to settle and once that process of building a shell around them has started, they can never again move to a different location.
Some species settle on other species like crabs, snails, whales or sea turtles, or moving objects like boats and floating logs or debris. In that way, they can travel and disperse, but they are at the mercy of their host to carry them to places where food is sufficient for growth.
The barnacle Chelonibia testudinaria has been studied with regards to all their interesting biological adaptations. The species lives on the shells of crabs or turtles, eternally riding along to wherever their host takes them.
I have heard complaints of single women and men in Kodiak who felt that the local pool of potential mates is limited in a small town like ours, but imagine being a species that is limited to living on the shell of a rare sea turtle with your only chance of seeing others of your species maybe once a year when the sea turtle joins up with another sea turtle!
Many invertebrates have external fertilization, meaning they release their eggs and sperm into the water in large amounts in the hopes that enough fertilized eggs result for the next generation to prosper.
Barnacles have internal fertilization. For an organism that is not mobile, this is a problem.
How do they do it? According to a study in the Journal of Crustacean Biology, C. testidunaria, like many barnacles, is hermaphroditic; they are both male and female at the same time.
Also, barnacles have the longest penis in the animal kingdom relative to their body size. With this, the barnacle can fertilize the eggs of the barnacles within reach, while having their own eggs fertilized by those around. Barnacle density and penis reach limit the number of mates.
In addition to all those challenges to the species’ propagation, the barnacles grow slowly and few reach the stage of full maturity.
It would seem that nature gave that barnacle species a lot of odds against its survival.
However, there is another curiosity that improves the mixing of genetic material. Some males reach maturity without growing to full size. The dwarf-males attach to the larger hermaphroditic barnacles and fertilize them, adding to the gene mix.
Now I get to use a word that you are likely to never have used for in your everyday conversations: androdioecy.
According to the before-mentioned article in the Journal of Crustacean Biology, androdioecy is a sexual system characterized by the coexistence of hermaphrodites and males.
It is an amazing world out there. Happy belated Valentine’s Day to you!