Sea bream and sex

J_Carreras.jpg
Ilustración: Jordi Carreras Doll, «a bit out their head» 

We
all have a sexual identity set since conception as a result of a
random distribution—X or Y. But the sex we will end up showing—a
quirk of Nature—doesn’t have to be determined by this biological
fact. Neuropsychological references that explain this behaviour can
be found in, for example, the famous Wikipedia, where we’re told that
the term “sexual identity” contains two well-distinguished
concepts: identity and sexuality. What a truism.


Let’s
dig into it. One thing is the idea that each individual has of
himself. What we feel we are no matter what we truly are. Quite
another is identity. To be honest, it comes to be more or less the
same, but explained differently—it’s like being something that is
aware of another. Clear, right?



Thus,
we can see that the concept of sexual identity is relatively easy to
apply to human nature, and although it could cause one or two
conflicts regarding identity or sexuality, it is right and
tolerable—as long as it doesn’t bring discrimination. Do not
psychologists deserve to live?


It
is obvious that nobody knows anything about sea breams… I
think there is no condom company, however famous it may be or means
it may have, that has dared determine what’s sex like for sea
breams. That’s because sea breams have—attention, check it
out, read it well—six sexes!


Yes,
you’ve read it right, six.


Biology
purists are cautioned to refrain from getting into detail, experience
has proved right. And if we add to that the bloody fact of using
biopsies on fish that—due to the terrible state of “sexual
frenzy” they’ve fallen into—ended up dying of pure ecstasy, we
can confirm it. There’s no organism capable to endure such ups and
downs of Nature. Not even mystical.


Sea breams belong to a family—meaning taxonomic—known as
Sparidae. They are quite normal, quite common, and fully
fish-y-shaped. But they’ve taken to hermaphroditism. But of course,
they’re not hermaphrodites as God intended—well, maybe I went too
far—like, for example, snails, kings of true hermaphroditism. No.
Forget it.


Let
me explain myself.


These
sea breams found out it is much funnier to alternate hermaphroditism
throughout life, and play with it if possible. Some genus of this
family like to start savouring the sweetness of the feminine side,
and then go over to the masculine—just like the dark side on
Star
Wars
but with sex. Others, however,
like to do it the other way around.


Sea breams are one of the latter, and yet they also have a distinctive
feature—they like to take their time to decide it. In the meantime,
individuals may conclude it is preferable to continue being what they
are for the rest of their lives, and thus they will remain unchanged.
They can start trying with the other sex, and if they don’t like it,
just turn it back. They give it a try and find something interesting
but not enough, so they keep both sexes but still a little more of
one than the other. It all may end up being quite confusing if one’s
more of one sex than the other, so they keep both equally. Finally,
they have the ability to decide having no sex at all, meaning they
settle for none.


It’s
madness! I’m so jealous!


Knowing
this sophisticated and complex mechanism of the way sex is understood
gave us many headaches. Obviously! Especially if the speed at which
these changes occur is determined by the cohorts who make up the
breeding lot.


Let’s
see if I make myself clear.


Imagine
you’ve already decided what you want to be, and that everything is
more or less clear. Well, a change made in the original
population—for example, individuals being replaced because of age,
some unexpected death or the need to generate new lots adapted to the
output—will probably disrupt our organisation and expectations.


No,
it’s not like in the lottery—not at all. But there is no certainty
that changes will finally meet our expectations. Moreover, these
changes may be different depending on the season they’re made.


I’ll
try to explain myself again.


If
changes are made or new members join the population
before
the spawning season—that is before
the time of year they should reproduce, it is possible that those in
doubt at first but now determined to change decide not to. So, what a
mess. If, otherwise, these changes are made
after
the spawning season, the odds are that the transition would speed up
a lot. So much that those we thought would be one thing, would turn
out to be the other.


Let’s
see if I make myself clear once and for all.


Sea breams are known to be protandrous
sequential hermaphrodites
—is that
all! As already mentioned,
hermaphrodite
is for the fact that each individual reproduces as male and as female
during their lives, which makes this animal slightly a “pain in the
gonads”. The
sequential
part is because they should start as one sex and then transition to
the other, not exhibit both sexes at a time—ha! And
protandrous
is because they mature first as males, nearly the only thing that
truly happens.


After
a peaceful childhood living in the angelic limbo of sexual
indifference, at about the age of two—or when the individual weighs
around 250 grams, starts growing fuzz, ahem, I mean… the first
glimpse of male gonads appear. Still, they produce nothing. In other
words, these gonads are decorative (very fitting the “like in many
men” comment, but I won’t make it).


After
a while and a bit chubbier, he shows bulge, ahem, I mean… his
gonads are perfectly formed, and they can produce plenty of
sperm—that he’s a virile male (I’ll spare myself to mention things
like quantity doesn’t always go hand in hand with quality). And he
likes to go on like that for a couple of years, until he gets bored
and decides it is better to discover new experiences (“which many
men would like”—I couldn’t hold my tongue).


The
oddest thing about this stage is that he keeps his male functions
while developing female gonads, and that these could be feminized by
80 per cent and still produce sperm with the remaining 20 per
cent—what a macho! (Sometimes we are useful!)


What
comes next is the senselessness of sex taken to extremes, with that
period of yes and no, of this and that, of yes and no but also… The
individual may function as a male but without producing sperm
(useless), as an immature female (same) or, since he doesn’t see the
big picture, he just turns back to what he already knows, and stays
as a male—which was quite well and what certainly most men would do
when realising how whiny we are… Well, it also pisses us off.
These males are never content.


Ilustración: Susón Aguilera «The original one»

But
fortunately, there are always individuals who ensue Nature’s plan,
and who decide they should end up being what in fact they are
supposed to be—meaning females, and guarantee the future of their
species. Luckily. Although most succeed and develop into a stunning,
fertile female, it might be that some (fully developed and without a
trace of male gonads) don’t feel like it, that they’re not sure—the
female part is OK, but laying eggs all the time doesn’t suit them.
And they just hang in there. Waiting to inherit the throne, that’s
actually what happens, as a Queen so, when the dominant, old females
move away, they can bloom with an extraordinary force—or not. Oh,
dear! Because they may be overtaken by a newly, freshly-young female.


Wasn’t
I clear?


Ah,
and this is not the most complicated case. Go figure!


The translator

Lorena Castell.

De
cría pensaba que al hacerme mayor sería una sirena, como quien
quiere ser médico. Ahora, algo más crecidita y convencida de que en
otra vida fui un pez, me dedico a corregir y a traducir.
Para
mí un planazo es ver documentales
«de
peces» (como diría mi padre), así que no es de extrañar que
disfrute reescribiendo historias marinas, ¿no? Y si encima hablan de
reproducción, mejor. Ahora mi vocabulario cuenta con un gran
repertorio sexual. Y, oye, eso que me llevo…




The illustrator

Jordi Carreras

Biólogo y acuicultor primigenio. Lleva 30 años gestionando y diseñando proyectos acuícolas alrededor de toda Europa, el Magreb, África occidental y América latina. En todo caso amigo y generoso, hasta tal punto que me ha permitido usar esta magnífica ilustración. Gracias

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