Sexual Cannibalism

Rahul Kanakia

The seventh-grader is still small enough to sit all coiled up with his legs pulled inside the desk. When he leans against the window, the sound of demolition reverberates through his head. His biology teacher turns away from the board to say something and the child’s eyes flick downwards to the man’s huge brass belt buckle: the head of a long-horned steer. The teacher has to raise his voice to be heard over the bulldozers.

The teacher turns back to the board. The seventh-grader’s gaze flicks down to the expanse of bronze skin — he can almost feel the tiny vellus hairs — on the back of Heather’s neck. He lets his feet slide to the ground and re-assorts himself to hide his erection.

The teacher says something about the praying mantis. During sex, she beheads her mate. After uncoupling from her partner’s corpse, she eats it.

Outside, the bulldozers furrow the soccer field and push the earth toward the immense flood-control embankment that they are building on the other side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

*

The eighth-grader is afraid that his mother will come looking for him, so he sneaks down into the basement. She does not like the basement. The high-water mark of the flooding — an orangeish striation — stains the top of the staircase. He sits in the blue darkness and lets the pixels fill him up. After ejaculating into the mildewy remains of a flood-damaged T-shirt, he frowns at the screen: the vagina, spread open, looks like the gooey inside of a star-nosed mole’s tentacular snout.

He is about to leave, but then he hears footsteps upstairs. His mom must be in the kitchen.

A lizard scampers across the exposed wall and the chirping of crickets hangs around his shoulders. The flooding has brought the natural world very close. During the warmth of the evening, the basement sighs, outgassing a musty smell that rises throughout the house. At night, it sucks its fumes back in, and they nourish the crawling things that are constructing a world down here.

He clicks through the Internet, idly looking for videos about insects.

Praying mantises are long green sticks with delicately tapered abdomens and fat spiky forelimbs that they use to grasp their prey. Most of them resemble thin-bladed leaves, but some species have vestigial wings that are covered in colorful or delicately swirled shapes so they can pose as a budding flower. Praying mantises are the simplest of predators. They sit, perfectly still, waiting for their prey to alight near them. Then they reach out and grab their victims.

During mating season, the female exudes a pheromone that draws the male closer. The male leaps onto the female’s back and grabs her just above the base of the wings. His reproductive organ — it resembles a fuzzy many-sectioned caterpillar with black markings — grows engorged, and with sideways motions of the abdomen, the male probes the base of the female, looking for the genital opening. A bridge forms between the two insects: it bulges and pulses with the transfer of semen.

*

The tenth-grader’s hand rests on Jenny’s back as they dance. He can feel a ridge underneath her sweater that he is almost certain is her bra strap. The light in the gymnasium is sickly and yellow; the storm-warning lights cannot be turned off, even though the only time they’ve ever been useful was during that one day when they all had to evacuate to the hurricane shelter.

She is smiling, but he already feels exhausted and defeated.

The tenth-grader’s conception of the praying mantis is that the male knows that sex will be fatal. The female of the species is larger and more powerful. And she is hungry.

So the praying mantis approaches with the bravado of a suicide bomber. Succeed or fail, this will be his last flight. Fatalism is an advantage; males who pull back and attempt to escape are doing themselves a genetic disservice — she might kill them before they mate, instead of afterwards.

So he offers himself. They engage in a delicate mating dance that involves much stroking of the carapace and nuzzling of wings. The rasp of forelimb over chitin demonstrates the carefulness and control of the mantis: these killing implements can, if desired, deliver the gentlest of touches. Eventually, he picks his way up and settles onto her back.

After they’re joined, he pushes his neck forward, offering it to the guillotine of her forelimb. As his head falls away, all of his joints tense up. His reproductive organ expands and bottlenecks her genital opening. His body squeezes itself dry. After she consumes him, his flesh travels down the narrow pathways of her body and nourishes his four hundred newly created sons and daughters.

*

The college student would be content to never stop running his hand down her bare flank: it’s so alien to be allowed the use of skin that’s not his own. But he can’t stop from flinching when Liane grinds herself against him. She reaches out, pressing the button next to the window filter, so that it hums and scrapes out its film of wind-borne particles. With the window lint gone, the sun and breeze tingle across the bed. She turns, threads a leg through his, and looks up. While she is gathering the breath to speak, he sees a squirrel fall out of the tree.

Then he is standing next to the window. The squirrel lies, twitching, on the paving stones. Its body is contorted, as if someone had taken its head and its tail and twisted them in opposite directions. Its limbs thrash, spinning it in circles. Liane glances down at it and says, oh, is that another one? before glancing at her phone.

The college student thinks he knows the truth about the praying mantis: death during copulation is neither expected nor inevitable. The male mounts the female from behind and keeps his forelimbs on her in order to control her movements. She is stronger, but the angles are in his favor: she can only kill by pinning him down with her hooked flanges, and these are designed to reach forward and below her. As long as he is on top, she finds it difficult to take him.

The male must dismount carefully, choosing a moment when the female is distracted or unwary. Sometimes they remain latched together for up to 24 hours; it is not unknown for the male to die of exhaustion while he waits.

After a few minutes, a groundskeeper comes and scoops up the corpse of the squirrel.

*

On the way to the lake, the grad student spots the yellow mist. In this county, all the spraying is with Perocyallide, which mammals are utterly unable to metabolize, but he still shouts for his car to activate its canned-air reservoirs. The workers, too, are covered from head to toe in a transparent safety film. The trees, though, are full of leaves, at least on their lower branches. And a few have already uprighted themselves and begun to grow towards the sun once again.

The south side of the lake is rimmed by sideways trees. One is so gnarled that it grows downwards; the branches are splitting apart and thrusting into the ground. The trunks are bright with orange fungus blooms.

The grad student locks his wallet in the car and sets out with a knife in one pocket and a phone in the other. The first man he spots is tall and tan in a pair of shorts. The grad student locks eyes with him. However, the jogger doesn’t slow down. As he passes, he stares into the grad student’s eyes and mutters the word ‘faggot.’

With his heart pounding and his fist around the knife, the grad student waits, but the jogger keeps running. In the lab, the grad student has learned the truth about the praying mantis: avoiding cannibalism is all about mate selection. Cannibalism is common in two instances: when the female is starving; and when she is a very efficient hunter whose aggressiveness spills over into sex. Male mantises make a slow approach, so they can assess the female’s mental and physical state. They make eye contact, to ensure that she realizes he is a mantis and not a cricket or stick insect or some other potential prey. If she looks hungry, then he bounds onto her back before she can react. If she appears full, then his approach is more leisurely and their coupling is not as protracted.

She does not want to kill him. She rarely gains an advantage from doing so. Sometimes, however, the compulsion overpowers her.

Next, the grad student sees a stocky man with a foot-long beard. The grad student is about to avert his eyes, but there’s a smiley-face tattoo on the man’s biceps. After they glance at each other, the man takes an abrupt left into the forest of sideways trees.

Between those skeletal boughs, the man locks his legs around the grad student and pins him to the ground. The grad student shudders. His hands tug at the man’s muscular arms, but then the man makes eye contact again. The grad student nods.

The man’s penis is as thick as the grad student’s wrist.

*

At the department party, the postdoc rolls his eyes and tells everyone that he and his gay-fiancé are gay-engaged to be gay-married.

Afterwards, Eric and the postdoc walk home along the embankment. Without speaking, they take a left instead of the right turn that would’ve led them home.

The carbon dioxide catalyzers bob up and down on the surface of the bay. When the wind slackens, the couple can hear the whisper of oxygen dribbling out of the sea of rust-red sponges. They walk hand in hand, until the postdoc finally lets Eric pull him close.

Out and to the left of them, the village gives way to a new-growth forest: the fungus-resistant trees are still only six feet tall, but they stand up straight and drastically outnumber the few groves of gnarled, partially bald old trees that have survived. Eric remarks that, well, he knows they’re healthier, but the new trees have no character.

And there, up on a hillside, is the postdoc’s research habitat: a translucent bubble — kept inflated by a slight positive pressure — that surrounds a stand of old-growth, unmodified trees shipped from a greenhouse that somehow managed to avoid being compromised by the fungus. They sit in the research station and look, through the plastic, at the birds flitting around the habitat in the evening light. The postdoc has never been inside the habitat. All the maintenance is done by drones. The risk of introducing the fungus is too high.

Eric remarks that this has been a cool summer, but the grad student disagrees. Statistically, this summer is no cooler than last year’s. People think that just because carbon dioxide levels are finally going down, there has to be some immediate climatological effect.

Then Eric asks why he keeps using the term ‘gay-married.’

The postdoc says it’s just a joke.

His research is finally ready. The article has been accepted by The Journal of Biological Sciences. The full manuscript is in the final stage of review at The University of Michigan Press.

Sexual cannibalism is quite common amongst praying mantises that’ve been studied in a lab setting, but it hasn’t often been observed in the wild. One theory is that captivity involves stressors — bright lights, artificial feeding, rough handling, glass walls, constrained habitats, etc. — that induce cannibalism. Cameras have been placed in the wild to try to observe natural behavior, but praying mantises — and undisturbed forests — are rare enough that the results have been inconclusive: the cameras haven’t been able to observe enough incidents.

Using old observations, footage, journal accounts, and other ancillary data, the postdoc has spent two years constructing a small-scale, but ecologically perfect, acre of New England temperate deciduous forest: cameras and sensors are literally built into the fiber of the forest.

This last mating season, he recorded 821 mating incidents involving 218 females and 181 males.

Only two of the females engaged in cannibalism. Furthermore, these individuals were cannibalistic in all of their encounters. His conclusion was that while many mantises can become cannibalistic when under stress, only a very tiny percentage of them are cannibalistic by nature. In casual conversation, he calls it the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘prison gay.’

As he is fond of noting, the proportion of human individuals who are pedophiles is around 2%. When all other maladaptive human sexual behaviors are totaled, that rate is greater than 10%. Thus, mantises exhibit sexual behavior that is healthier, as a species, than that of human beings.

In a videotaped lecture, the postdoc remarked on the power of human self-deception. They’d fallen so in love with the mantis’s sex-cannibal myth that they’d overlooked how silly it was, on an evolutionary level, and how any species that engaged in it would soon find itself outcompeted by other, sturdier, creatures.

In his video footage, the mantises terminate their mating with considerable tenderness. Their thumb-shaped heads rub up on each other and killing mandibles brush each other’s bodies. Their wings become entangled and then shake themselves free. The male often stands near the female for a few hours to ward off other males. Sometimes, if he is old and ill, the male will break off its own genitals and allow them to remain lodged inside the female, sealing them together in irrevocable monogamy.

*

By the standards of entomology, the professor’s book causes quite a stir. The news blogs pick it up as just another example of scientists having to backtrack on their crazy, half-baked findings. A cartoon of a lipsticked praying mantis being sprung from death row gets forwarded around by a hundred thousand people.

The professor is considered a hero for having the courage to call out the errors of past scientists: the public is still waiting for all those climate scientists to admit that they’d been needlessly alarmist.

But then the backlash begins. Once the forests reopen to tourists, wildlife photography becomes popular. The professor is sent hundreds upon hundreds of high-resolution videos — usually captured by some hobbyist’s tiny camera drone — showing the same thing: a mantis struggling to disengage itself from a viciously attacking female. Sometimes it escapes, but more often it ends up headless. Or, sometimes, if his struggles are too weak to necessitate immediate death, the female simply eats her partner bit by bit, moving outward from the abdomen to the head.

The scientific community circles around the professor. Hobbyists simply don’t understand scientific protocol. Of course, the hobbyists had observed the mantises acting oddly. The professor’s research has conclusively demonstrated that mantises do act oddly when they are under observation.

The hobbyists respond that their cameras are tiny and well camouflaged; there is no way that the mantises can know they’re being watched.

The professor’s habitat is doing well. He’s brought in considerable grant money by renting it out to other scientists who need an undisturbed environment for their experiments. His university fast-tracks him for tenure. His career is made.

But, after viewing enough reports from enough hobbyists, he decides that he needs to demonstrate the veracity of his research. He builds a replica habitat: same materials, same trees (with a few accommodations for fungus control), same cameras, same everything, except that this one is open to the outside world.

He stocks the new habitat with descendents of the same mantises he used in his original research.

And during that mating season, the mantises engage in 312 acts of sexual cannibalism.

He has no explanation for this behavior. Something to do with the fungus, or the chemicals used to control the fungus, or global warming, or the techniques used to control global warming. Something, somehow, somewhere, is disturbing the world’s mantises.

That winter, he is invited to speak at the Environmental Protection Agency’s triage event, held annually at a Holiday Inn Express outside Denver, Colorado. Forty-one conservation experts have been invited to testify, but only seventeen RSVP positively. Few scientists want the power of life and death over an entire species.

The professor has been invited to speak for the mantises. Do they deserve conservation funds? Should there be an intensive effort to find the source of their decline? Is it the government’s duty to restore the mantises to their Edenic state? The question is not whether it can be done. In a world that has conquered global warming, surely there is nothing that is impossible. The question is whether it needs to be done.

He declines their invitation by sending the following letter:

Praying mantises are top-level predators; they are not the primary food source for very many creatures. They do serve a pest-control function, but there is no environment in North America where they are so numerous that the pests would multiply out of control in their absence — there are always other species that fill a similar function.

Over half of the world’s mantis species have gone extinct, but over 1,000 are left, and the pace of extinction has slowed. In North America, mantis habitats are relatively standard deciduous forests: mantises do not tend to live in the sort of biodiversity hotspot that deserves broader, overarching protection. And praying mantises are not one of those universally beloved species that can be used to win funds for other, less charismatic fauna.

Furthermore — contrary to my own expectations — the recent alteration in mantis behavior does not appear to be maladaptive. Males killed during insemination tend to ejaculate longer and more forcefully. They inseminate more eggs and their partners lay larger egg clutches. The males who lose the fight to survive are the ones who win the fight to pass on their genes. I fully expect that as the years go on, evolution will select for more and more submissive males, until there finally arises a generation of males who freely offer themselves up to the mandibles of their lovers.

After mailing the letter, he walks out to his habitat. Even though it is impure, he prefers the new habitat to the old one: at least, in the new one, he is allowed to walk amongst the trees. He sits on the bench that he’s installed next to the creek. Above him, a mantis is lying in wait on a leaf. Another is on a log. A third skitters up a tree. As he sits there, he spots a dozen and then two dozen of them. They are everywhere.

After half an hour, the professor becomes aware of someone standing behind him. The professor does not turn and does not speak, but he can’t help himself from twitching slightly when Eric’s hands come to rest on his shoulders.

The professor leans back to receive his husband’s kiss.