When it comes to flirting, animals display a remarkable amount of creativity.
Male lemurs engage in "stink fights" by pulling their tails through scent glands on their wrists and then waving the smelly tail in the air. Komodo dragons wrestle other males away and then woo females with tongue touching and biting. Fireflies flash special coded messages of love.
During the eighth annual Love Tour at the Minnesota Zoo on Feb. 14, visitors can learn about some of these romantic rituals as they woo their own species. During the tour, guides lead couples down the Tropics Trail, where they sip champagne while taking in details about the varied mating behaviors and reproductive methods of all kinds of creatures.
"I'm blushing a little," said Becky Duchild, an aquarist, or aquatic specialist, who helps run the event, as she described mating habits of sharks. "When they are breeding, they bite on the pectoral fin, the side fin," she said, "and then they hold on as they try to copulate. It gets fairly violent." Because of this, she said, female sharks have evolved so that their skin is twice as thick.
"From a keeper's perspective, it's fun," she said about the tour, which is for ages 21 and up, "because this is the stuff that we don't get to talk about. It's R-rated. We give them a lot of information that we don't talk about with kids and families."
Each of the tour guides tends to focus on his or her area of expertise. For example, bird specialists might discuss the breeding behavior of hornbills, which exhibit fierce loyalty. Most of the birds are monogamous, and the female seals herself in a nest cavity with only a slit open to the outside world to lay her eggs. The dutiful male hornbill brings her food, Duchild said, and she trades him her droppings and trash to discard.
"He doesn't run away when she's locked up," she said.
As an aquarist, Duchild likes describing the romance and parenting techniques of underwater creatures. Seahorses go pouch to pouch, she said, and the female deposits eggs in the male seahorse's pouch, who then carries the baby. In mouthbrooding fish, males or females carry eggs in their mouths. They develop into a small fry that swims in and out of the parent's mouth for protection.
Even coral reproduction can seem rather sweet and romantic -- their yearly mass spawning, in which they cast eggs and sperm to mingle in the ocean waters, is usually based on moonlight, Duchild said.
An elegant Valentine's dinner and dessert follows the tours, with music provided by Café Mélange.
The event serves as a fundraiser for conservation programs for the zoo. For instance, in 2010, Duchild said some of her pet projects were championing a great white shark tagging project done by researchers in California and in 2012 supporting research looking at nautilus population in the Indo-Pacific.
"It's a great way for us to have an impact," Duchild said.
The event has been popular enough to bring back repeat customers. "It's been very popular," special events manager Judy Thompson said. "The tours are very fun. People are always looking for something a little different to do."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.