Animal magnetism: Sexual Nature bounds through daring Natural History Museum show

By Laura Burgess | 10 February 2011
A photo of two white rabbits having sexual intercourse against a black backdrop
Taxidermy of rabbits, hedgehogs and foxes, specially commissioned for Sexual Nature, reveal some of the surprising strategies that have evolved in the animal kingdom© Natural History Museum
Exhibition: Sexual Nature, Natural History Museum, London, February 11 – October 2 2011

If only sex education classes at school were as insightful as the Natural History’s latest exhibition.

Entering a room with seductive mood lighting, a large screen with the image of two primates mating and a red neon sign that spells out the word sex, it’s obvious we’re quite literally in for a lesson on the birds and the bees.

There are some bizarre and intimate secrets from the animal kingdom to be had here. Did you know that male spiders produce small webs to collect their sperm, inject it into the female’s pedipalps and retreat before she tries to eat them? Nor did we.

Spiders aside, visitors will more than likely be drawn to the nearby sounds of moaning, and will probably be slightly amused to see the first of Isabella Rossellini’s short films which feature throughout.

Dressed like a snail, Rossellini re-enacts the thought processes Roman molluscs would go through before and during sex, including shooting each other with love darts in a surprising bout of foreplay.

The series Green Porno also sees Rossellini practising the mating techniques of a praying mantis, examining how dragonflies protect their investments and the nocturnal world of firefly mating.

“I wanted people to laugh, but then to leave and say, “Wow, I didn’t know about that’”, she says, and her aim has certainly been achieved.

But you could say that about the whole exhibition – which takes us back to basics with the question of what sex is – makes us leave our moral codes at the door when it comes to plant and animal reproduction.

A barnacle’s penis, for instance, measures up to 30 times the length of its body. A male garter snake also suffocates the female before the female opens her genital orifice, which usually releases faeces or chemicals, and the male penetrates.

Of course, the exhibition calls on Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom. Visitors can see the large Argus Pheasant which helped Darwin distinguish between sexual selection and natural selection.

He realised that the rare bird used its beautiful tail to attract partners for mating rather than having body features for protection against predators.

Interestingly, there is also a chance to look at the battle of the sexes, with Guy the gorilla as an example of a dominant male creature with a hands-off approach to being a father figure and partner.

A photo of the face of an enormous hairy gorilla with black hair, dark blue skin and brown eyes
Sexy beast: Guy the dominant Gorilla has a chest measurement of 183 centimetres and a neck circumference of almost a metre© Natural History Museum
Believe it or not, some males’ only purpose in life is to be a sperm donor, as with bonelia marine worms which live in the female’s genitalia ready to fertilise eggs. Some animals reverse the gender stereotype by being the dominant partner, as in the case of the female spotted hyena.

There’s nothing quite like ending the exhibition by looking at humans in the section You Sexy Beast. This examines what sex means to us and how we go about choosing a mate. Is it by body size and shape or are partners suited to each others’ cultural criteria?

Scientists believe that humans are more attracted to people with different scents to their own. But perhaps one of the oversized quotes from Mae West sums up our sexual relationships – “sex is emotion in motion.”
Sexual Nature will definitely open eyes to the physical world of plants and animals which were probably never considered before.

The exhibition is brimming with facts – male hedgehogs plug vaginas with hard-setting seminal fluid, the female praying mantis devours the head of the males during sex and the tip of the ram’s penis rotates to spray sperm around the cervix.

Seductive and playful, this is a show which could give you a Valentine’s Day option with a difference.
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