Sex Started with Scottish Fish 385 Million Years Ago!
I have always been proud of my Scottish heritage, which my father traced back to his mother’s maiden name of Boyd. The Boyd clan is a family subset of the Queen’s Royal House of Stewart clan, which lays claim to the colorful, red Royal Stewart tartan plaid. I grew up listening to my dad’s favorite bagpipe tunes, especially Scotland the Brave,and watching him proudly dress up in his royal Stewart tartan plaid pants along with vest and tie for the holidays and special occasions. I hired three bagpipers plus a belly dancer for his surprise 60th birthday party much to his delight.
Coincidentally, I recently celebrated my 60th birthday in New York City with my fun-loving college girlfriends of 40 years. After a festive dinner at Fresco, we literally stopped in our tracks on Madison Avenue to observe a parade of very handsome men in kilts exiting the door of a private club. When we asked the occasion they explained it was the Caledonian Society’s annual dinner to celebrate Robert Burns’ birthday, which is January 25, two days before mine. He is Scotland’s national poet and lyricist and wrote the beloved Auld Lang Syne in 1788.
That night, I vowed to join the Caledonian Society so I could annually admire handsome Scots in kilts! We got up our nerve to ask the friendly Scot in this photo “What do you wear under your kilt?” He smiled, put his arm around my sister and answered “talcum powder!”
The book How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It was published in 2002. It was a holiday gift for my dad, and he loved it. Much to my surprise, there is now something quite revolutionary from evolutionary history to add to that impressive list. Ancient Scottish fish were the first to stop external spawning and have internal sexual intercourse 385 million years ago! And so I wonder, does that mean we are all just a wee-bit Scottish?
Paleontologist John Long, of Flinders University in Australia, found primitive, lake-dwelling armored fish invented internal fertilization and copulation 385 million years ago in Scotland. Professor Long calls the discovery revolutionary for the evolutionary history of sexual reproduction. Long’s research was just published in the science journal Nature.
Male fossils, Microbrachius dicki, developed bony L-shaped genital limbs called claspers to transfer their sperm to females. The female of the species developed small paired bones to lock the male organs in place for mating.
Professor Long explained “Microbrachius means little arms but scientists have been baffled for centuries by what these bony paired arms were actually there for. We’ve solved this great mystery because they were there for mating, so that the male could position his claspers into the female genital area. It was previously thought that reproduction spawned externally in water, and much later down the track in the history of vertebrate evolution.
Our new discovery now pushes the origin of copulation back even further down the evolutionary ladder, to the most basal of all jawed animals. Basically it’s the first branch off the evolutionary tree where these reproductive strategies started”.
Long added that it was likely that the fishes had sex in a sideways position by locking their bony jointed arms together. “With their arms interlocked, these fish looked more like they are square dancing the do-si-do rather than mating.”
The discovery also signaled the first time that males and females displayed distinctly different physical appearances. It was the first time in vertebrate evolution that males and females developed separate reproductive structures, with males developing claspers, and females developing fixed plates to lock the claspers in for mating.
The image below depicts the male fish locking his claspers onto the female’s plates in an underwater embrace. It looks rather romantic to me! I can just imagine the strains of bagpipes playing Auld Lang Syne as they share the joy of sex – a mere 385 million years ago!
Ancient Scottish Fish Enjoying Sex Image credit: Flinders University
On a final Scottish note, I was watching Good Morning America this morning and suddenly two bagpipers marched on the set playing Scotland the Brave. They are part of an effort to conserve the Scottish Highlands. You can purchase a wee-bit of Scotland and become an official lord or lady with a framed certificate for a modest price. The news anchors were all thrilled to be dubbed with these honorary titles. Just in time for the holidays, I plan to give my family the royal tartan treatment!