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Weird animal sexual behaviour can become tedious

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Nasty, Brutish and Short

The Quirks & Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour

By Pat Senson

McClelland & Stewart, 296 pages, $20

STRANGE animal sexual practices are not the sort of thing you can Google without feeling like a colossal pervert.

Well, this dubious work of popular science allows you to read all about the weevil's spike-covered penis, the orgies of the sea slug and hermaphroditic barnacles as part of what you are able to justify as "science education."

Author Pat Senson is a former producer with the popular CBC Radio program Quirks & Quarks. He draws everything here from the last nine seasons of the show, including quotations from scientists as they were interviewed on-air.

Senson's first half-chapter on insect sexual practices (where we learn how the male bed bug stabs his mate in the abdomen with his knife-like penis, for example) justifies the title Nasty, Brutish and Short. Each anecdote covers roughly a page and a half, with about 10 such anecdotes per chapter.

After the first two chapters, which focus on weird animal sexual behaviours, mating practices and anatomy, tedium begins to set in.

It's sort of like TV crime dramas. At first they're immensely entertaining. But then the "formula" emerges. And once you see the formula, you can't ignore it.

As he moves into Chapters 3 and 4, which cover animal parenting and foraging practices respectively, Senson's "formula" for describing animal behaviour becomes clear:

1. Begin each section with a pithy, dubious analogy to human behaviour (e.g.: Imagine if you had to sleep upside down at night! Bats do!).

2. Describe the behaviour in question in the simplest possible terms. Use lots of quotes from scientists and appeal to shock value wherever possible.

3. End the section with a terrible pun, another pithy analogy, or sweeping conclusion and exclamation point worthy of a high-school English essay (e.g.: Boy, it sure is a good thing we're not bats!).

Stringing together hundreds of largely unrelated anecdotes is difficult to do in a coherent way, and Senson's ostensible solution is to end and begin each section with his favoured pun/analogy strategy. The reader is left with the sense that the collection of anecdotes was thrown together haphazardly.

The chapter on impressive physical feats (much like the one on sexual behaviours) contains some amusing factoids, and the section on parasites had a lot of potential.

These creatures have many odd behaviours and can even cause strange behaviour in other animals. But since Senson sticks with scientists interviewed on Quirks & Quarks, he's left with a small, underdeveloped chapter on parasite behaviour.

At least the book is readable. Someone with no biology knowledge can learn something about animal behaviour and evolutionary principles in a fairly entertaining way.

But the regular Quirks & Quarks listener, or someone with an adventurous sense of curiosity and access to Google, could probably skip it.

Jen Robinson is a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Manitoba.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2010 H7

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