They play dead and make themselves smell gross.
When it comes to romance, men can be pretty clueless. Ask almost any woman and she’ll tell you a story about the insane methods she used to rebuff a potential romantic partner. Dudes are not always great at intuiting that ladies are not interested.
There is some good news, though. According to science, this behavior isn’t limited to humans — animals do it too. And female creatures across the animal kingdom are equipped with defense mechanisms to help ward off sexual harassment.
Let’s journey into the wild and discover a few of them together.
Female sexuality in the wild
Mating in the wild is a constant dance to find the most viable partner. Evolution functions over a period of generations, so if a female wants successful offspring, she’ll attempt to pair up with the most successful male she can find. Unfortunately, much like in the human world, unproductive males need love too.
A recent paper from the University of Exeter studies the way females across a number of different species demonstrate “sexual quality.” In the animal kingdom, males typically display more impressive ornamentation than their female counterparts — look at the lion’s massive mane, or the peacock’s enormous fan of tail feathers. Contrast that with female peacocks, who are drab, brown birds.
Why do men have to show off to attract mates when women don’t? The paper poses a fascinating thesis: being seen as sexually superior doesn’t provide a significant advantage for the majority of female animals. Rather, it makes their lives more difficult by attracting the attention of sex-crazed males.
Catcalling in the wild
Sexual harassment is a real problem in the animal kingdom. During mating season, female elephants react to the uptick in male pheromones by running away as fast as possible. This enables them to select a partner who is physically fit, while keeping the undesirables at bay.
With this in mind, it makes sense that female animals don’t evolve to become more physically attractive. They don’t need any more loving, thanks. In fact, the truly successful female animals are the ones that develop strategies for avoiding unwanted sex.
The many sexual strategies of female animals
Male guppies harass females when they spawn. Guppies are polyandric — meaning females will accept sperm from multiple mates — but they select their preferred partners. This becomes more difficult during the dry season; fish can be trapped together in small tidepools for months, making it challenging to avoid a loser male.
One study discovered that female guppies who endure frequent sexual harassment develop a more efficient swimming technique. Over time, this results in a population of faster fish, better suited to avoiding predators.
Insects have their own methods of avoiding unwanted male attention. The moorland hawker dragonfly fertilizes her eggs through a single instance of sexual contact. Any additional lovemaking can damage her body and her babies. Unlike other species of dragonfly, the hawker males don’t stick around to protect their mates after they get it on, leaving the ladies vulnerable.
To protect themselves, pregnant females resort to desperate measures when pursued by males. The female dragonfly will stop beating her wings and go into a free-fall dive, playing dead for as long as it takes for the male to lose interest. Once they’re gone, the female flies to safety.
Some butterflies have developed a chemical deterrent to unwanted mates. After mating is complete, green-veined white butterflies emit a chemical called methyl salicylate that violently repels any male in the area — it’s kind of like a natural pepper spray. Interestingly, this chemical is transferred to females by the males during sex.
All this to say that love in the wilderness is pretty damn intense. Regardless of what sexual educators would have you believe, neither the birds nor the bees have it that easy. Sure, female animals don’t have to worry about their exes stalking them on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still dealing with clueless males.