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Science Behind the Fiction: Theoretically speaking, could Dracula really have a kid?

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Jul 18, 2018

Vampires, popularized by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, have terrorized the imaginations of people for centuries. The exact origin of the creature's mythos is difficult to pin down. Popular understanding of what makes a vampire a vampire changes has changed over time. In less than a hundred years, the time between the 1931 Bela Lugosi film and the modern day, vampires have gone from undead aristocrats to sparkly teen dreams, for better or worse.

According to Matthew Beresford, author of From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, the idea of the life-sucking undead dates back to ancient times, at least to Egyptian culture where they were otherworldly demons summoned from another plane of existence. Interestingly, vampires are not the product of one single time or place. Similar tales hale from all points of the globe and have, over the centuries, crossed paths, sharing their best points and evolving from generation to generation.

According to some scholars, there's reason to believe the real source of the vampire scourge is a misunderstanding of disease and a desire to maintain control over our lives. "The one constant in the evolution of vampire legend has been its close association with disease," Mark Collins Jenkins writes in his book Vampire Forensics. Outbreaks of vampire mania throughout history have tended to coincide with outbreaks of plague or other illnesses. Without a clear understanding of biology and illness, people looked for anywhere to place the blame, even if it meant exhuming a corpse, cutting out its heart, burning it, and consuming the ashes.

Thankfully, knowledge and wisdom have confined vampires to fiction — and not all of it is even scary.

Hotel Transylvania (2012) made more than $350 million worldwide with its family-friendly vampire action. The success of the first movie has warranted two sequels, the most recent of which, Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, hit theaters July 13 and is well on its way to recovering its $80 million budget.

The franchise tells the tale of Dracula, of Stoker fame, in the modern day. Dracula (Adam Sandler) is a widower and single parent. The first film hinges on complications that arise when Dracula's daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) comes of age and becomes romantically involved with a human, Jonathan (Andy Sandberg).

There are few things more relatable than the struggles of a parent dealing with a child leaving the nest and making decisions at odds with their own values, but it's a concern you might not have expected from the king of the undead.

There is, however, some precedent. Stoker's novel introduces three brides of Dracula, implying the ghoul is capable of romantic or sexual relationships. Dracula and his three brides were characters in the 2004 film, Van Helsing and the concept of their reproduction was a central plot point, mainly in that their children were all born dead as opposed to the more desirable, undead.

The Dracula of Hotel Transylvania apparently didn't have the same problems, at least when it comes to Mavis, but it causes viewers to wonder, how exactly did Dracula conceive a child and is it possible to reproduce after death?

The short answer, of course, is no. Biological function is required in order to mate and reproduce. The long answer is a little more complicated and a lot more interesting.

Retrieval of sperm from a deceased human male for the purposes of reproduction is possible, provided the sample is retrieved quickly. There are, however, ethical concerns surrounding such a practice and, in the absence of federal regulations, medical institutions are scrambling to determine their own guidelines for handling requests.

Despite the possibility, through the use of medical technology, for a deceased male to reproduce, it's not quite the same thing as the actual individual actively participating in the mating.

When we move outside of the human sphere and into the animal kingdom things get a little muddier.

Guppies

Guppies are small freshwater fish originally hailing from South America but are now found around the world. Male guppies only live for three or four months while females can live as long as two years. This difference in lifespan is especially important when considering the way these tiny fish reproduce.

Females of the species are capable of storing sperm for extended periods, at least ten months, maybe longer, and retrieving the stored tissues for reproduction long after the originating male is dead.

Due to the relatively short lifespan, when compared to females, it's possible for the offspring of a particular male to be born two generations after his death.

This plays a significant role in maintaining genetic diversity. Because females live so much longer, they are more capable of moving and founding populations in new areas. Genetic diversity often takes a hit when a few individuals move into a new area but because of this unusual reproductive strategy, a population founded by a few females can have the genetic diversity of a much larger population.

It isn't wholly uncommon among humans for a child to be born after the death of a father, but this would be equivalent of a child being not just born but conceived after the death of the father, as well as the children of his contemporaries and their children. This allows the females of the species to choose the best of several generations to take part in the progression of the species.

Anglers

Guppies aren't the only fish with bizarre reproductive habits. While the storage of sperm for later use, several generations on, is incredible in its own way, the method female Anglers use to reproduce as desired takes things to a much weirder place.

Of the 160 species of Angler Fish, 25 utilize a uniquely strange method of reproduction known as sexual parasitism. You're likely familiar with the terrifying visage of the female Angler, with its massive jaws, long and terrifying teeth, and luminescent lure. Males of the species, however, are much smaller and lack most of the interesting features of their counterparts.

They don't have the huge jaws and lure that make the females of the species the stuff of nightmares for fish and humans alike. That's because they never hunt, not even once. From birth, male Anglers have one singular focus: finding a mate. They live out their lives, subsisting on whatever nutrients available to them at birth and they hunger for only one thing, the belly of a female.

Once a mate is found, the male Angler latches on and fuses with the female. Once done, the eyes and fins fall away, they're no longer needed. What remains is a husk of the previous animal.

The remaining tissues are kept alive via the circulatory system of the much larger female and continue to produce sperm on call. The male isn't dead in the strictest sense of the word, the remaining tissues and organs are kept alive and viable, but it ceases to be an individual and lives entirely at the whims of its mate.

Additionally, due to the female Angler's long lifespan, upward of 30 years, they often acquire several mates, fused to different places on their bodies, and are capable of retrieving sperm from any one of them when they decide to reproduce.

Males of the species are, for all intents and purposes, freeloaders. And all it costs them is their autonomy.

Mantises

In terms of reproduction after death, we've gone from the interestingly bizarre with Guppies to totally weird with Anglers, but when it comes to truly macabre afterlife reproduction, the Mantis is queen.

It's common knowledge that mantises are sexual cannibals. That isn't entirely unheard of in the insect world. Many species of spiders engage in similar behavior and, while it seems crazy to us, it makes economical sense. Bearing hundreds of children takes a high caloric toll on the female and the male is an easy meal. With the job done and survival of the species assured, why not be the late night snack that assures the continuance of your children?

In truth, sexual cannibalism only occurs in about one-third of mantis couplings, as if that should make everyone feel better. Reproduction is a big job for the female mantis and it comes with a heavy metabolic cost. Every time a male mantis approaches a potential mate, he's putting his life in her terrifyingly jagged forelegs. It isn't uncommon for a male to be consumed prior to mating in order for the female to carb up before getting to work. Even when a male is successful in mating, there's a good chance he'll become an after-coupling snack for his mate.

All of that pales when compared to the most bizarre of mantis mating rituals. Females mantises have been documented attacking and partially consuming suitors, then leaving them to their devices. The males, now permanently separated from their heads, continue the pursuit of their one true goal.

The mating response in male mantises is controlled not by the brain, but nerves in the abdomen. This makes it possible for the act of mating to occur after the time of death, so long as the body still has enough juice.

In fact, some studies suggest that males who are consumed during or after reproduction are more successful in terms of their genes passing on. So, from a certain point of view, those who lose their heads in the act of love rule the day.

We ought to be grateful that mating among our own species doesn't require the sacrifices all too common within the animal kingdom.

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is in theaters now.

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