NAU biologist explores bizarre give-and-take between species

Marty Crump

The natural world is full of unusual relationships—vampire bats that regurgitate blood for roosting buddies, reptiles that enforce chastity on their lovers, Capuchin monkeys that use millipede secretions as mosquito repellent.

Such negotiation between life-forms striving to survive is evolution at its most diverse, entertaining and awe-inspiring.

In her new book, Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers, Northern Arizona University adjunct biology professor and tropical field biologist Marty Crump takes readers on a voyage of discovery into the world of extraordinary interactions involving animals, plants, fungi and bacteria.

“I have purposely focused on unusual, often bizarre relationships within and between species because I find them fascinating, amazing, often inspiring,” said Crump, who conducts all of her research in South America. She currently is working on a collaborative project with Darwin’s frogs in Chile.

Alan Crump
An oxpecker rests after a thorough de-ticking session on an impala. Oxpeckers have a cooperative relationship with various large mammals including hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, wart hogs, zebras, elephants, giraffes and buffalo. Illustration by Alan Crump

Sexy Orchids illuminates the ceaseless give-and-take between species. Occasionally both interacting parties benefit, like when hornbills and dwarf mongooses hunt together for food. Other times, one individual benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed, such as with orchids that mimic the shape and smell of female insects to dupe male insects into pollinating them without the benefit of nectar in return. But sometimes one individual benefits at the expense of the other, as with jackal flies that steal food captured in the webs of orb-weaving spiders.

Some of the more unusual examples in Crump’s book include mites that hitch-hike in hummingbird nostrils, male long-tailed macaques that “pay” females for sex by grooming them, and the assortment of animals that use plants for medicines, stimulants and hallucinogens.

Sexy Orchids is a sequel of sorts to Crump’s previous book, Headless Males Make Great Lovers. The latter focuses on unusual natural history in general: mating games, parental care, food and feeding, defense and communication. In Sexy Orchids, Crump focuses on unusual relationships within and between species in the hopes that readers will gain a greater appreciation for natural history.

“The world is full of amazing interactions between and among living organisms,” Crump said.
“The more we know about these relationships, the better we appreciate the fact that we are all interconnected.”

Sexy Orchids Make Lousy Lovers was published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Read an excerpt from the book online.