Last year, this blog debunked the myth that getting semen in the eye hurts because the sperm are trying to impregnate the eyeball, which never in a gazillion years would I ever have imagined we would have to do considering we thought we’re all, you know, sensible adults here. Anyway, the post deserved some elaboration, so we turned it into a three-part series. I thought we’d done our duty.
So you can imagine my horror when — while out on one of those New York three-hour liquid lunches — I heard someone relate the story of a woman who’d allegedly had semen attempt to inseminate her tongue and cheek. This newsroom alone has collectively swallowed enough semen over the course of our lives to sink the Titanic and none of us have ever had any issue, so we knew this was nonsense. But every one of those stories has a point of origin and we simply had to find this one. What could possibly have happened?
I’ll tell you what happened. Squid happened. According to a paper published in the Journal of Parasitology, a 63-year-old woman was having a plate of Japanese flying squid (Todarodes pacificus), which is served with organs intact and enjoyed only partially cooked, when the cephalopod ejected its ejaculatory mechanism in her mouth.
Overcome with an immediate pain, the woman spit out the bite of squid but the pain did not subside. At the hospital, she described to doctors a “prickling” and “foreign body” sensation. Specialists discovered 12 “small, white spindle-shaped, bug-like organisms stuck in the mucous membrane of the tongue, cheek, and gingiva” (otherwise known as the gums). The intruders and affected tissues were removed.
Clearly the “organisms” in the woman’s mouth were not organisms at all but spermatophores, which form part of a squid’s reproductive mechanism. But how does that work? To figure out what in God’s name had happened there, I referred to another paper, Getting Under the Skin: Autonomous Implantation of Squid Spermatophores, published in the Biological Bulletin in 2007.
Cephalopod spermatophores are “complex secreted structures that hold sperm masses and that consist, in part, of an ejaculatory apparatus for releasing the sperm mass and a cement body presumably for attaching the sperm mass to the female.” Because the sperm don’t move on their own, they depend on the spermatangia “capsules” that the aforementioned “ejaculatory mechanisms” eject to deliver them to the female. (You can read more about the various reproductive parts of male cephalopods here, and entertain yourself with one of last year’s sexy science stories: that squid are bisexual. It’s not quite right, but if it taught even a fraction of the U.S. population what a cephalopod is, I’m not going to look the gift horse in the mouth.)
So back to squid jizz in the mouth. In their paper about squid reproduction, authors H. J. T. Hoving, and V. Laptikhovsky detail the removal of spermatophores from M. ingens, another squid species that embeds spermatangia, and the subsequent placement of said spermatophores on the body of a dead male squid. Basically, it looked like Figure 1 below. After the spermatophores had been spread over the unsuspecting creature, the “reproductive reaction” was induced by gently pushing on the spermatophores with forceps, which brought about the ejection of spermatangia (Figure 2).
In a matter of minutes, the spermatangia had independently embedded themselves into the tissue. The image below shows what this looks like from outside the recipient’s body (Figure 3) and what it looks like from inside the recipient’s body (Figure 4). In Figure 4 you can see both the sperm mass and a remnant of the ejaculatory apparatus. Isn’t that amazing? It’s amazing.
“The everting ejaculatory apparatus has the first contact with the tissue and may facilitate adhesion or the first penetration into the tissue, perhaps by mechanical means,” write the authors. “After eversion, the cement body is exposed and may dissolve (perhaps with the aid of proteolytic enzymes) the host tissue to allow further penetration of the spermatangium.”
In short, once the spermatophoric reaction has been kicked off, spermatophores are able to implant themselves into whatever they land on. Given that females of the species lack a sperm storage site (a place in the female where sperm can be stashed until the eggs are ready to be fertilized), this form of intradermal implantation appears to be highly adaptive.
So the spermatophores that caused that woman such misery were not nature gone awry so much as evolution showing us brilliant adaptation in a very unfortunate way and at a very, very bad time.
I appreciate the lesson, don’t you? Though I’ll be avoiding dishes containing any kind of cephalopod for the next… oh, million years.
No, I’m kidding. And for those of you who are worried, listen to Danna Staaf at Squid A Day:
In order not to leave calamari connoisseurs unduly freaked out, I should clarify two points. First, most Western squid preparations remove the internal organs and serve only the muscle, so there’s no danger of accidentally ingesting spermatophores. Second, it’s perfectly fine to handle spermatophores — just don’t put them in your mouth. The skin on your hands, and most of the rest of your body, is much too thick to get stuck. I’ve probably had hundreds of spermatophores ejaculate on my fingers and never felt a sting.
See? Nothing to worry about.