Image: Garter snake
Oregon State Univ.
A male garter snake flicks its tongue on another snake in order to detect pheromones and determine whether or not it's a female.
By Managing editor
updated 2/12/2012 3:10:57 PM ET 2012-02-12T20:10:57

Give a male garter snake a taste of estrogen and watch out, as the hormone turns these lads into the sexiest thing on the block, attracting dozens of other males eager to mate.

The finding, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, has implications for understanding the environmental impact of compounds that mimic the effect of estrogen, found in some chemicals and pesticides.

Estrogen, the researchers found, is key to a female's release of pheromones and thus, reproduction.

Here's how it works: For the red-sided garter snake, picking up a mate takes but a second and a flick of the tongue. When a male detects a possible mate nearby, he licks the female with a quick flick of his tongue.

Researchers say that the chemical cues exuded by the females, called pheromones, are so strong that it takes but an instant for the male to determine the other snake's species, sex, population, reproduction condition, size and age. In fact, the males are totally dependent on these pheromones for snake reproduction.

Every spring, tens of thousands of these garter snakes emerge from their limestone caves north of Manitoba, Canada, for mating. Intense competition ensues, as males swarm (and tongue) female snakes in an effort to be the first to mate with her. The frenzy appears as twisting balls of snakes called mating balls.

The males tend to choose the larger, more mature gals, because these females can produce more babies; they also have a slightly different chemical signature in their pheromones. While young, small females do get action, they aren't the preferred mates.

Once they mate, the females emit a different pheromone, confirming "no more sex." That causes other males to lose interest and leave the area.

In the new study, the researchers implanted male garter snakes in their natural environment, each with a capsule that raised their estrogen levels to approximately match those of female snakes. After one year of these estrogen supplements, the male snakes started secreting a pheromone that seemed to cause other males to swarm to them, forming clumps of writhing snakes tangled together. Apparently, the estrogen caused the males to secrete "female" pheromones.

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"We thought this might work, but we were surprised the results were so compelling," study researcher Robert Mason, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, said in a statement. "The amount of estrogen the male snakes received was nothing unusual, just about what a normal female would produce."

The other males, in fact, preferred the male snakes with boosted estrogen levels to the small female snakes, the researchers found.

When the researchers stopped giving the males estrogen, they reverted back to their normal behaviors.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: 10 peeks at sex in the wild

  • Image: scroll fragment
    Jerome Maison  /  AP file / Warner Independent Pictures

    Emperor penguins endure some the harshest conditions on the planet — the Antarctic winter — to satisfy their primal urge for sex. The annual ritual begins with a days-long, up to 75-mile slog to their inshore breeding grounds. Once there, an elaborate courtship of calls and poses reunites old mates and enables young lovers to form lasting bonds.

    Copulation itself occurs under the cover of the dark of the polar night. Then the true sign of their devotion begins: Males huddle together to incubate the eggs as the females waddle back out to sea to feast, fattening up to provide for their newly hatched young. Once she returns, males depart in the first of a tradeoff that may, eventually, allow for healthy offspring.

    Click on the "Next" label for nine more peeps at sex in the wild.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Captive pandas require help to get it on

    Image: Pandas
    Wichai Taprieu  /  AP file

    In the wild, biologists say pandas get it on without too much of a hitch. But since the wild population in China's mountain forests hovers around just 1,600, there's a push to boost the panda population in zoos around the world. And that's where the problems lie. Many pandas lack interest in their arranged mates and some inexperienced males who give it the old college try fail to engage the proper body part. As an aid, some zoo keepers attempt to arouse the bears and teach them appropriate technique with specially made DVDs, a.k.a. panda porn. When that fails — and it often does — artificial insemination is considered a last resort. These tricks combined with a better understanding of what makes the panda libido tick are beginning to pay off. The captive population has boomed in recent years.

  • Male macaques groom for sex

    Image: Japanese Macaque monkeys
    Shuji Kajiyama  /  AP

    Male macaques groom females in exchange for sex, according to a study that examined the market underpinnings of monkey sex. According to the research, based on 20-months of observation in an Indonesian nature reserve, a female is three times more likely to mate with a male if he grooms her first. Supply and demand also comes into play: Males spend more time grooming when competition for female attention is greater. Scientists refer to this practice as a biological market.

  • Male antelopes play hard to get

    Image: Antelopes
    Jakob Bro-Jorgensen / Zoological Society of London

    For highly-desired male topi antelopes in Africa, the frenzied six-week-long mating season is exhausting. Any given female is receptive for about a day, thus she wants to mate as many times as possible, especially with the fittest males. This creates intense competition for high quality antelope sperm, allowing those that possess it to be picky. A study of the phenomenon found the choosy males deliberately select the least mated females and fend off aggressive females they've already mated with. The aggressive female in the center of this image is attacking the male on the left as another female eyes the scene.

  • Sumatran rhinos tussle before they tango

    Image: Newborn rhino
    Tom Uhlman  /  AP

    Mating for the typically solitary and territorial Sumatran rhinoceros is a drawn-out affair. Studies of the critically endangered species in captivity show that when a female becomes receptive to a male's approach, she'll exhibit increased urine spraying, tail raising and swinging, and vocalizations. Foreplay includes head and genital butting, which can be a bit too much when a female isn't quite ready to tango with a young and aggressive male. But when the tussle is successful, a male will mount, often riding his mate for up to an hour. The image here shows the results of a successful mating at the Cincinnati Zoo. Such captive breeding efforts are a silver lining for conservationists hoping to keep the Sumatran rhino alive — just 300 are thought to remain in the wild.

  • Burliest walrus bulls get the harem

    Image: Walrus
    Liz Labunski  /  AP

    With a cacophony of clicks, clacks, whistles, and bellows, male walruses swim around the chilly Arctic waters vying for the attention of ice-bound females. Males will also fight off other males that get too close, sending the loser packing. Once the fussing and fighting is done, female harems surround the burliest males in the water for an underwater romp. Though scientists know little about what actually happens under the cover of the waves, they do know walruses are endowed with the mammal world's largest penis bone, called a baculum, which extends up to 30 inches.

  • Dolphin mating is brief, but bountiful

    Image: drainage channel
    Noaa  /  NOAA

    For playful dolphins, mating seems just like another carefree and pleasurable way to pass away the day. Along with some typical male posturing for access to females, there's plenty of chasing, rubbing, nuzzling and stroking that constitutes as foreplay. The belly-to-belly copulation act itself lasts less than a minute, though is often repeated several times over the course of an hour.

  • Virgin female spiders risk all for a big mate

    Image: archaeological site in Masada

    For some male spiders, sex is the ultimate sacrifice: females eat them as part of the reproductive ritual. But among the East African blood-gorging jumping spider Evarcah culicivora, shown here, males possess the coital-infused cannibalistic urge. Nevertheless, female virgins opt to be deflowered by bigger males before settling in with a small guy for the long haul. Scientists suspect females gamble with their fate once in hopes of producing larger, fitter offspring, but decide not to double down after the flirtation with danger.

  • Sappy sex for beetles of all sizes

    Kensuke Okada

    As this picture shows, Japanese sap beetles come in big, medium, and small sizes. Generally, in the beetle world, mating success is only bestowed on males with the biggest bodies because they can beat out the competition with brute force. Big sap beetles successfully employ this strategy, but when they do, the medium guys take to the air with their extra long wings and survey for sites where big males are absent. But the little guys have the biggest testicles. This allows them to hang with the big guys and sneak sex behind their backs. Since the little beetles have such big testes, they produce more competitive sperm, upping their chances at siring offspring when they get a shot.

  • Cycads have 'hot' plant sex

    Irene Terry  /  Univ. of Utah

    Hot sex has ancient roots. The males in a group of plants called cycads, which have been around for at least 250 million years, get all hot and bothered as a means to compel pollen-covered insects deep in their cones to flee forth and find a female to pollinate, according to scientists. The plants begin the process by emitting a fragrance that lures little insects called thrips into their cones. After a few hours of the thrips feasting and rolling around in there, the cycads heat up as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit, which turns their sweet smelling fragrance into a stench. The thrips flee, some landing on benign-smelling female cycads and thus completing the pollination cycle.

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