Commentary: Fishing for cuddles? Consider the cuttlefish!

The cuttlefish

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The cuttlefish

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Ah, Valentine’s Day. We like to think that our typical tokens of affection– cream-filled chocolates, tinkling trinkets, teddy bears holding frilly heart-shaped pillows– are deeply rooted symbols of love and commitment.

But if the goal of giving is to find and possess (have and hold) a worthy mate with whom to create not only love but new life, then observing the mating habits of other species might teach us something. It turns out that being sneaky– and even two-timing!– can be evolutionarily rewarding.

Consider the cuttlefish– a sea creature resembling an octopus, but whose love life could be lifted straight out of a telenovela. When it comes to mating, a large male cuttlefish will aggressively fight off other large males to protect its chosen female. Then he will hover over her, even tossing her the occasional crab, until she is ready to mate.

But his real competition is the smaller, cleverer, male cuttlefish, who is closer in size to the female. This “sneaker” male will literally (and flatteringly) disguise himself as the female, changing his skin tone to match hers– even hiding his extra appendage!– to sneak right past the larger male “protector” to mate with the female right under the big guy’s nose.

How successful is this method for passing on genes? While the female cuttlefish rejects up to 70 percent of any male’s advances, she will mate at a slightly higher rate with the smaller sneaker-males. So, survival of the fittest might not mean that just bigger, stronger and faster genes get passed on.

It turns out that a good amount of life is created by creatures who are good at sneaking around. And it’s not just cuttlefish. As many as 40 percent of female songbirds lay eggs as a result of a different male’s sperm than the one that helps feed and protect her nest. Hmm.

It’s telling that the cuttlefish drama has all the characters of a human soap opera– a desirable female; a strong, silent male, or big lug, unable to declare his love except with aggressive possession, protection and fancy food; and a smaller male who sweet-talks and charms the female into receptivity by mimicking her exactly.

So this Valentine’s Day, think twice about what you’re celebrating. What is implied by the heart on the card she gives you that’s already pierced by Cupid’s arrow? And is that diamond pendant he gives you just one more “crab” tossed at your feet while he hovers around possessively waiting for you to mate?

Instead of giving chocolate (the duping drug of love), why not tell your mate this story? Then let him or her take you out for some cuttlefish sushi.