Animals playing mating game at academy

Courtesy PhotoWonder of wildlife: Reproduction is the theme of “Animal Attraction” at the California Academy of Sciences. Among the creatures in the exhibition’s 18 tanks are orange spotted filefish

If you think love bites, be glad you’re not a praying mantis.

If you were — shall we say — Mr. Mantis, you might have your head snapped off by Mrs. Mantis the moment you make your intentions clear.

The mating ritual of the mantis is just one of the interesting stories found in “Animal Attraction,” a fascinating exhibition at the California Academy of Sciences. There are 18 tanks of creatures on display in the bright orange gallery, from snails that fire “love darts” to hermaphroditic banana slugs.

Instead of the usual exhibition labels, iPads are attached to the walls beside each tank. It’s a brilliant move. Interested in what the biologists have to say? Care to watch a courtship dance? It’s there at your fingertips.

Animals are willing to do whatever it takes to attract mates and pass along their genes. It makes sense: without reproduction, plants wouldn’t flower and birds wouldn’t sing.

“Reproductive success is the most important thing and is responsible for much of what we find beautiful about life,” says academy spokeswoman Kelly Mendez.

The emperor scorpion sets the mood with an elaborate mating dance that can include shaking and stinging. Either scorpion can start the dance, but then the male takes the lead.

Among fairy basslets, a group of deep reef fish, the biggest female in the “harem” undergoes a sex change to replace the dominant male if he goes belly up.

“In the animal kingdom, monogamy is rare,” Mendez says.

Parenting habits vary. Orange spotted filefish like to stick together; once the female lays her eggs, she and her mate swim off.

The male three-spined stickleback, who weaves his own nest from algae, leaves and pebbles, is more devoted — at least to his offspring. After he persuades his partner to lay her eggs, he kicks her out and cares for the eggs until they hatch.

Other animals prefer an artistic approach. The male bowerbird of Australia attracts a female by building an elaborate display of twigs, leaves and brightly colored objects such as blue plastic bottle caps and other bits of trash.

Children’s responses to this exhibit will vary, depending on their ages. Younger ones will be intrigued by videos such as the one showing the male Surinam toad depositing a pile of eggs on his mate’s back. It’s fun to watch the toadlets hatch and swim away.

Tweens, on the other hand, may squirm at any mention of reproduction. Make them go anyway. The Academy of Sciences is always worth a visit; after “Animal Attraction,” you’ll have plenty to talk about on the way home.

IF YOU GO
Animal Attraction
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through February 2013 or longer
Tickets: $19.95 to $29.95
Contact:  (415) 379-8000;  www.calacademy.org

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