(Don’t) Do It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel

The beginning of February (which we slide into tomorrow) is always the beginning of a month of romantic reflection for me due to Valentine’s Day being right in the middle. I even have a series of alternative Valentine’s Events at my Pathology Museum. Given that my current musings tend to be on sex and death and how they interconnect, I wrote this piece to explore some of those links: This is only part one and it specifically focusses on necrophilia in animals to ask the question, “Are we humans influenced on any level by animal behaviour? Do we gauge our own actions by observing theirs?”

Anyway – Enjoy:

“Death and the Little Death”: Exploring Links between Sex and Death (Part One)

Introduction – Sex and death are inextricably linked both biologically and culturally, and the French even famously describe orgasm as le petite mort or ‘the little death’. This article attempts to examine those links, in animals and subsequently humans, with a view to understanding this unlikely but intriguing relationship.


“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death” – Oscar Wilde

There is a link between sex and death. It’s a theme which appears frequently in literature, music and art, such as in Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, from which the above quote is taken. But why should this be so? Why should Wilde compare the mystery of love to that of death as though the two were somehow interconnected? Why not to the mystery of faith or another similarly complex issue? Perhaps it’s because the knowledge of these links already exists at the subconscious level.

Freud’s famous theory of ‘drives’ places human behaviour into two classes: The Life instinct (also known as the Sex instinct) and the Death instinct. Later these would be called Eros and Thanatos, anthropomorphised into the Greek deities of Love and Death respectively. However, the imposing image of Death with his scythe is echoed by Eros who is ready to mortally wound us with an arrow through the heart. Thanatos and Eros are two depictions of the same consequence because for some species the sex instinct IS the death instinct.

Animal Sexual Suicide and Necrophilia

In a process known as suicidal reproduction or semelparity, (a clear illustration of the above two drives) the males of certain species have a frenzied breeding session, shortly after which they die – usually of infection or internal bleeding. It is a behaviour famously seen in Pacific Salmon and many insects including butterflies and mayflies, some arachnids and also squids and octopuses. It does occur in some marsupials too, such as the antechinus [1] and illustrates that the urge to engage in sexual activity is tempered by the inherent knowledge of certain death for some creatures.

Freudian analogies don’t really apply to animals, but there are ways in which animals can be an indicator of what we believe to be ‘natural’ and therefore determine how we humans define certain behaviours and create associations.

Animal necrophilia is known as ‘Davian’ behaviour, named after the below limerick:

“There was an old miner named Dave
who kept a dead whore in his cave
you have to admit
he hadn’t much wit
but look at the money he saved”

and it has been observed and recorded, in various guises over the years.

Early arguments against homosexual activity would use the common mating habits of creatures in the wild to theorise that same sex partnerships are somehow abnormal. This is until it was understood that indeed many animals do indulge in homosexual activity, and it simply may not have been recorded as it wouldn’t occur with great frequency.

Adelie PenguinWhen ascertaining genuine links between sex and death, copulating with the dead is the clearest interconnection there is, and this too occurs in the animal kingdom, usually by males. However animal necrophilia if recorded by naturalists could be deliberately left out of public papers as it was considered to be far too shocking for the average reader. In June 2012, research about the sex life of the Adelie penguin (above), undertaken by Arctic scientist George Murray Levick, was unearthed at The Natural History Museum by its curator of birds, Doug Russell. During Captain Scott’s expedition of 1910-1913, Levick had witnessed male penguins commonly engaged in necrophilic sex with females and, as a typical Edwardian gentleman, the behaviour had shocked him. He described it as “astonishing depravity” and wrote his finding in Greek so that only educated gentlemen could read it. 100 years later this information has now been published in a public forum [2] as presumably we are less easily shocked in the 21st Century.


Penguins are not the only animals who frequently engage in necrophilic acts, and the behaviour was recorded in a duck in 2005, by Dutch researcher Kees Moeliker who watched the mallard copulate with a dead female duck for 75 minutes (with two short breaks). [3] This gave rise to a celebration entitled “Dead Duck Day” and won Moeliker an ‘Ig Nobel Prize’. Even earlier, a Feral Rock Dove or pigeon (above) was witnessed copulating with a dead fellow pigeon which had been run over by a car. It was “so stimulated that it did not move when cars approached” and a small queue of motorists apparently queued up as the bird continued its “energetic performance” [4]. In 1988 Philip Lehmer reported on necrophilic activity in the snappily titled article “Avian Davian Behaviour” which involved five males copulating with a dead hen that had just been pecked to death by two geese [5] and in 1959 it was observed in a Ground Squirrel by Robert W. Dickerman [6] Further examples include cane toads (once observed to engage in this activity for eight hours in a documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History) and even our beloved cats and dogs.

The above activities are considered by scientists to be behavioural abnormalities, but some animals such as the Amazonian Frog have cultivated what is now known as ‘functional necrophilia’ [7] The male frogs are able to procure eggs from the abdomens of dead females and fertilise them, a revolutionary way to deal with the scarcity of females during their highly competitive mating seasons (there are ten male frogs to every female)and an interesting comparison to the ‘abnormal’ behaviour described above.

Mantis2Conversely, the mating of some species such as the Mantis and several other arachnids ends in cannibalisation, this time with the male being the receptive sex. If the male is cannibalised by the female during the mating ritual, above, (she begins by devouring his head), copulation is prolonged and sperm transfer, during the frenzy, is increased:  “The praying mantis’ brain, located in his head, controls inhibition, while a ganglion in the abdomen controls the motions of copulation. Absent his head, a male praying mantis will lose all his inhibitions and consummate his relationship with wild abandon.” [8] However it is worth pointing out that some sources have determined that this type of mating ritual only occurs around 30% of the time, presumably because its success rate is so high there is no need to continually repeat the process.

Considering the sexual compulsions of all the above animals, at this point it is interesting to note that even the word ‘libido’ (sex drive) has its own opposite energy: ‘mortido’ – death drive.

 Part Two next week……….


[1] “Sperm competition drives the evolution of suicidal reproduction in mammals” Diana O. Fisher et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013

[2] “Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin” Douglas G.D Russell; Cambridge Journals, 2012

[3] “The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae)”C.W.Moeliker, 2001

[4] “Feral Rock Dove displaying to, and attempting to copulate with, corpse of another” Evelyn R. Slavid and Julie E. Taylor, British Birds, 1987, p497

[5] “Avian Davian Behaviour” Philip N. Lehner, Wilson Bulletin, Vol 100, Issue 2, 1988

[6] “Davian Behaviour Complex in Ground Squirrels” Robert W. Dickerman, Journal of Mammology, Vol 41, No.3, Aug 1960

[7] “Functional necrophilia: a profitable anuran reproductive strategy” T. J. Izzo et al. Journal of Natural History, Vol 46, Issue 47-48, 2012

[8] “Does praying mantis sex end in cannibalisation of the male?” http://www.about.com/

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