The surprising secrets of 'Sex in the Wild'
PBS series takes an intimate look at animal reproduction.
Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 02:14 PM
Joy Reidenberg holds a baby kangaroo during "Sex in the Wild," a new PBS series about animal mating habits. (Photo: PBS)
Don't let the provocative title fool you: "Sex in the Wild" is the furthest thing from pornography, or even titillating cable drama. This is PBS, after all. But it is an entertaining, educational, explicit and scientifically stimulating look at how animals reproduce, airing on four successive Wednesdays beginning July 16. Hosted by professor and animal anatomy and reproduction expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg and veterinarian Mark Evans, the series examines how elephants, kangaroos, orangutans, and dolphins mate, give birth, and nurture their young in their natural habitats, from Botswana to Borneo, Australia and New Zealand. Reidenberg explains what viewers can expect from the show.
MNN: How did you become involved with the series?
Joy Reidenberg: I feel it is our responsibility, as scientists, to educate the public about science. TV documentaries are the perfect medium to do outreach science teaching, and PBS is the perfect channel as it is focused on delivering educational content. I was asked to be the presenter for this series due to my success in previous documentary work for PBS as the comparative anatomist for the award-winning series "Inside Nature's Giants."
How or why were the subject animals chosen?
Elephants, orangutans (and other primates), kangaroos (and other marsupials), and dolphins (and other whales) were picked because they reproduce in very extreme circumstances, a special set of circumstances that we focus upon in the series. For example, the elephant's birth canal has an unusual position that protects the baby from a dangerous drop during birthing, but this makes it more difficult for males to navigate during mating. Orangutans have figured out how to mate, give birth, and raise their young while suspended in the treetop canopy. Kangaroos, being marsupials, have a completely different kind of pregnancy that involves so much more than just having a pouch. It allows them to modify the rate of reproduction in sync with desert conditions to maximize survival. Dolphins have to mate at high speed, give birth, and nurse their young underwater while holding their breath.
What are some of the most surprising things we'll learn?
You'll learn why the elephant penis exhibits an involuntary "searching behavior," orangutan females are aggressively promiscuous, kangaroos have three vaginas, and dolphins have a spring-loaded penis.
What can it teach us about the evolution of reproduction and how it adapts to the environment?
"Sex in the Wild" will teach us about the diversity of reproductive solutions animals have evolved to manage overcoming incredibly hostile environments. For example: All animals evolved originally from an aquatic ancestor, where salt water was an essential ingredient in the environment. Land animals must duplicate this condition for their young to survive, develop and grow. While reptiles and birds make shelled eggs to retain this salty fluid, placental mammals such as elephants and orangutans retain it within the womb. Interestingly, marsupials reduce this stage of development (perhaps allowing fluid conservation in the desert) and opt for the fluid-free environment of the pouch. Paradoxically, dolphins — having returned to the water through evolution — now have a new problem to overcome: salt water kills their sperm. Luckily, female dolphins have adaptations that protect the sperm.
What was a highlight for you, your favorite moment of the experience?
The most emotional moment for me was when an orangutan in the wild that was moving through the canopy overhead, came down close to my level and stopped to watch me walking along a jungle trail. She then reached her hand out to me, and waited for me to touch it. I hesitated at first, not knowing if it was safe, or even allowed. But she waited for me, with her hand still outstretched, and her eyes looking right at mine. I was transfixed, and compelled to reach back up to her. When our fingers touched, it was magical. It reminds me of Michelangelo's painting of Adam and God touching fingers … only I felt more like Adam (I was positioned lower and I didn't initiate the action). She then curled her fingers and our touch became a secure grip, almost like a handshake. Funny how when I remember it the scene replays in my head in slow motion, although for everyone else watching it happens quickly in real time.
Was it important to you to include the conservation aspect?
Yes. In a nutshell: people protect only what they love, love only what they know, and know only what they see. PBS provides that essential mix of entertainment and educational content that keeps viewers interested and learning. In other words, public TV lets them "see" so they can know, love, and ultimately act to protect it. Many of the animals featured in our series are threatened or endangered populations in need of protection. Conservation efforts in the past have focused on protecting animals, but now we have learned that that is not enough. We need to protect their habitat too. For most people, that translates to places with food and shelter. However, it's equally important to protect those spaces and places where animals compete for mate selection, copulate, carry pregnancies, give birth, and raise their young. There is no survival of a species without producing the next generation. However, reproduction may also need to be controlled in managed habitats with overpopulation problems. If we know what the essential elements are for successful reproduction, we can focus conservation efforts on protecting or controlling opportunities for "Sex in the Wild."
How did you get into comparative anatomy? What's your educational background?
My bachelor's degree is from Cornell University, College of Arts and Sciences, where I majored in animal anatomy and physiology. I received a master's and doctorate in anatomy from the Graduate School of Biological Sciences at Mount Sinai. My interest in anatomy probably began as a child. I liked examining natural objects I would find on the beach or in the forest. I definitely enjoyed looking at live animals. Examining dead ones in the kitchen, however, gave me my first opportunity to see them up close (e.g., gutting and cleaning fish, preparing a turkey with giblets, separating chops from rack of ribs). I can't say I ignored road kills, or dead things on the beach — I definitely enjoyed collecting bones and shells (the snails and clams were long dead before I got to appreciate their shells). I also liked drawing what I observed in nature. My liking for animal structure intensified in college, particularly through courses in anatomy. I even took my boyfriend on a date to see a public dissection of a porpoise. Who does that for a date? Luckily, he wasn't scared away, and we did get married! I spent a college summer dissecting fish and making drawings for a dissection manual. During that experience, I realized that I could combine my fascination with nature (specifically animals) with my interest in anatomy, my skills as an artist, my nerdy desire to ask lots of questions, and my adventuresome spirit to seek discoveries. These beautifully meshed into a career called comparative anatomy.
Where do you teach? Where are you based now?
I am a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. I teach a course called Structures to medical students. It covers anything to do with the structure of the human body, including histology (micro-structure), anatomy (macro-structure), and embryology (development and growth of structures). I am also a scientist, and my research is in comparative anatomy. I study and compare the structures of the bodies of animals adapted to extreme environments to better understand how those unique solutions work. My goal is to develop new medical treatments or protective devices for people based upon mimicking nature.
Did you grow up with animals?
Yes, we always had at least one dog, one cat, one bird, and some fish in my childhood home, and sometimes turtles and frogs. What I really wanted was a horse, though!
When did you know you wanted to work with them?
I'm not sure there was ever a time when I didn't find animals fascinating, but I probably really considered it as a career option when I was in high school and thinking about what college to apply to, based upon what I thought I wanted to do for my career.
Are you partial to any animals in particular?
All the baby animals were so cute, it's hard to choose. I'm particularly fascinated with dolphins and whales because their adaptations are so extreme, and that is why I focus most of my own research activities on them.
Do you have pets at home?
Yes, currently we have a cat that we adopted from an animal shelter. Our house also overlooks a wildlife sanctuary with all manner of North American animals. Those are our communal "pets" — except you can't actually "pet" them!
If there is a second season, which animals would you like to include?
In a new series, I would like to investigate non-mammals: arthropods (insects, spiders, millipedes, lobsters, etc.), fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds.
What do you hope viewers take away?
I hope viewers experience a sense of wonder for the incredible variety of strategies these animals use to overcome the various challenges to successful reproduction. In addition, I hope viewers feel motivated to use that knowledge to advocate for protecting those essential environmental elements that provide opportunities for "Sex in the Wild."
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