Sex might be fun but it’s not without risks. As your partner exposes themselves to you, they also expose you to whatever bacteria, viruses or parasites they might be carrying. But some animals have a way around that. Ekaterina Litvinova has found that when male mice get a whiff of female odours, their immune systems prepare their airways for attack, increasing their resistance to flu viruses.
Litvinova worked with a group of mice that were exposed to bedding that had previously been soiled by females in the sexually receptive parts of their cycle. She compared them to a second more monastic group that were isolated from female contact.
Male mice use smells to track down females who are ready to mate. They’ll follow markings of faeces and urine and when they actually find the female, they’ll continue sniffing her nose and genitals. Each of these nasal encounters could be a source of infection. She then pitted both groups against a flu virus. Influenza doesn’t affect wild populations of house mice, so the virus in this case is acting as more of an indicator of the animals’ defences, rather than a representative of a real threat.
Both groups of mice lost a bit of weight, but at certain doses of virus, those that had been exposed to female aromas kept more of their grams on. They also fared better in the long run – just 20% of them died, compared to 46% of those that had only smelled male odours.
The two-toed sloth is a walking hotel. The animal is so inactive that its fur acts as an ecosystem in its own right, hosting a wide variety of algae and insects. But the sloth has another surprise passenger hitching a ride inside its body, one that has stayed with it for up to 55 million years – a virus.
In the Cretaceous period, the genes of the sloth’s ancestor were infiltrated by a “foamy virus“, one of a family that still infects humans, chimps and other mammals today. They are examples of retroviruses, which reproduce by converting an RNA genome into a DNA version and inserting that into the genome of whatever animal they’re infecting. If these hitchhikers become permanent tenants, as so often happens, they become known as endogenous retroviruses or ERVs.
ERVs act as a sort of viral fossil record, telling us about the ancient viruses that infected ancestral animals. In the sloth’s case, its ERVs tell us that foamy viruses must have been doing the rounds among ancient mammals over 100 million years ago, back when the dinosaurs still ruled the planet.
Despite the passing of a geological age, their descendants still circulate today and are astonishingly unchanged. The modern viruses look very similar to the one that inserted its genetic material into the sloth’s ancestors. That’s especially amazing because retroviruses – take HIV as an example – have a reputation for mutating at incredibly high rates.