Sex lives of salamanders

Friday, 17 September 1999

A frog he would a wooing go...

HAVE you ever stopped to think about the possibility of having access to a mystical formula that would make you infinitely desirable to members of the opposite sex? (Sorry, let me make that "members of the appropriate sex" to include readers who are not heterosexually inclined.)

I've been wondering about this as I've been wandering about with a frog he would a wooing go (heigh-ho says Rowley) playing through my mind over and over and over and over...

No, it's not about French perfumes. (Far be it from me to apply a derogatory epithet to people from the country which makes the second best wines in the world.) I'm talking about salamanders.

Yesterday, a Reuters report out of Washington said scientists have isolated a single protein in a salamander pheromone which turns female salamanders into writhing quivering harlots. (Well, they didn't exactly phrase it that way, but that's the overall effect.)

Pheromones, for those of us who may not be familiar with the term, are chemicals used for signalling. They are relatively rare in vertebrates. A University of Chicago graduate student, Stephanie Rollmann, took apart the pheromone used by the males of one species of salamander to inflame the passions of his intended. Her results have been published in Science magazine.

Not all animal signalling is chemical of course. There's this little gem sent to me by Lesley Byram from our newsdesk:

I wish I were a glow worm
A glow worm's never glum
It's hard to be down-hearted
When the sun shines out your...

Never mind. Back to our story.

Rollman discovered that there appears to be a single protein in this salamander pheromone which forces the female to abandon anything her mother may have taught her about how to handle a first date.

"To our knowledge this is the first vertebrate pheromone to affect female receptivity," she said.

This particular species of salamander is from the mountains of western North Carolina. (North Carolina's mountains and their salamanders will have been moved to east Texas by hurricane Floyd by the time you read this.)

The male has a gland known as a mental gland (who names these things?) under his chin, and he wipes this across the female's nares (no, I don't know what that is) or her nostrils. This quickly culiminates in the salamander equivalent of Kidman and Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Rollman's team found that just a single protein from this pheromone, isolated and rubbed across the female nostril, has the same effect. A frog he would a wooing go...

Maybe the French did know something about this. Was it not Napoleon who was supposed to have said "Josephine, I am coming home. Don't wash"? Never mind. Back to our story...

One mammal known to attract mates through pheromones is the boar. There have been many attempts to find the equivalent in human beings. (If you believe the ads published in the classifieds here and around the world, you will find that these have already been invented and available for just nine-ninety-nine plus postage.) These attempts have, thus far, proven unsuccessful. Rollman's breakthrough may be the first step in changing that.

Now all of this is extremely politically incorrect. If the female of the species can be reduced to putty in male hands because of a whiff of a chemical, but not vice-versa, we'll never hear the last of it. The equality police will outlaw water pistols for starters. Gas masks will become the norm among those women who wish to be loved for their minds. Old Spice will go out of business...

Among cultures where women are treated as possessions, the culture shock will be devastating. Those primitive barbaric societies currently practicing clitoridectomies will add nostrils to the list of parts they believe need to be removed from women. And so on and so on.

I'm probably reading too much into this. My mother always said I had a hyperactive imagination. It's just that I'm a tiny bit worried at the possibility that the currently undefinable mysteries of physical attraction could in the next millennium be reduced to a message in a bottle.