It’s that time of year again—whether we like it or not! The time of red and pink, candy hearts and chocolates, cupids and couplings. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we thought we’d take a look at signs of love in the oldest, most talked-about form of interaction there is right here in our own backyard—the Chesapeake Bay. And so without further ado, here are our picks for the top five most interesting mating habits found among Chesapeake critters (reader discretion is advised!):
- I Like the Way You Move
The blue crab—the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic critter—uses quite an elaborate dance to attract its mate. Standing tall on his tippy toes, a mature male will extend and wave his claws rhythmically toward the female and as author William Warner describes in his famous Beautiful Swimmers: “Finally, to make sure he is not ignored, he snaps his body backward and kicks up a storm of sand with both swimming and walking legs. It is a spectacular finish. If all this fails to convince, the Jimmy will patiently repeat his repertoire, as most courting animals commonly do.” Generally, the on-the-cusp-of-molting females get the idea pretty quickly and respond with reciprocated claw waves. Soon she tucks her claws into a submissive posture and allows the male to clasp and carry her thus becoming a “doubler.” This position not only allows for mating but also ensures the male’s protection of the female as she vulnerably molts and sheds her shell.***
- Mr. Mom
In the unusual case of the pipefish, most of the parenting duties fall to the father. In late spring/early summer, the female lays her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where they are fertilized. For roughly two weeks, the male will hang vertically, camouflaged by underwater grasses, as he incubates the eggs until they hatch. He then releases a cloud of tiny, fully-formed pipefish directly from his pouch into the water.
- One Last Hurrah
Alas, after spawning in mid-summer, jellyfish feel they have nothing left to live for and promptly die. But before that sorry state, a female’s eggs are fertilized when a male releases sperm into the water, which is then pumped through the female’s body as she swims. Once fertilized, eggs develop into tiny, free-floating larvae which the female then releases into the water where they float with the current and then attach to a firm surface. They will remain there as dormant polyps through winter until warmer weather induces them to break free and develop into floating medusa and eventual mature adults.
- The Best of Both Worlds
Oysters have the unique ability to change sex over the course of their lives….say what now?! In fact, most oysters less than a year old are male, while most older oysters are female. Adults release sperm and eggs (a female can release about 100 million eggs each year!) into the water. Within 24 hours, the sperm finds and fertilizes the egg and then develops into free-swimming larvae. After two to three weeks, oyster larvae grow a foot, which is used to crawl over and explore various surfaces before settling down and attaching to a hard surface.
- “My One and Only”
Finally, ospreys are perhaps the most romantic creatures in the Chesapeake, mating for life and returning each year to nest in the same area where they were born. As true with many relationships, ospreys develop a strong partnership as they build their “home” or nest together in late winter. As they continue to play house, females lay eggs, which they incubate for one to two months. The devoted parents stick together and feed and care for the nestlings for 40-55 days after hatching until they learn to fly.
***It’s worth noting that for years, the female crab keeps the sperm in a pouch and only fertilizes eggs with it in batches beginning the following spring when she is well on her way to the crab spawning grounds at the mouth of the Bay. The batches develop into “sponges,” an egg mass that matures over a few weeks, followed by the release of larvae that then are swept out to sea for a month or so before being swept back in the Bay by favorable currents. So mature female crabs can fertilize multiple batches of eggs from the same mating episode—they only have one encounter while males get to have many!