Whales and dolphins have surprisingly interesting sex lives, full of varied positions, elaborate vaginas, and a rare type of ever-erect penis. Dara Orbach, a marine mammologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, has been studying these elaborate cetacean connections for 7 years and she has made some shocking discoveries, some of which will be presenting today at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting.
Science sat down with Orbach to discuss his work and the best part about studying the sexual habits of some of the ocean’s most famous creatures.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Let’s start with the most obvious question: why study this?
A: Copulation is the most direct interaction possible between males and females, but we know so little about it largely due to the physical challenges of studying it, especially with underwater creatures. It is therefore only by looking internally at the animals as they copulate that we can better understand these mechanisms. We do this by examining tissue samples from animals that have died of natural causes. We use whole penises and whole vaginas.
Q: And then you go into the lab and put them together like puzzle pieces?
A: Yes. But what makes our study more unique is that Diane Kelly, one of my co-authors, found a way to inflate these penises to their full erect size, which was never done. before. If you think of a post-mortem specimen, it will start to shrivel up. We found a way to inflate them to be the closest imitation of what a real intromission would look like.
Q: How do you inflate the penis of a dead dolphin?
A: We used pressurized saline, so we basically had a nitrogen tank and filtered the pressurized air into a smaller keg – like a beer keg – that was full of saline, and then we got it. have pumped into the penis.
Q: What do female genitals look like?
A: They are amazing just because of this diversity, which has never been documented before. You open them up and you never really know what you’re going to see inside. Is it going to be relatively simple? Or will there be these spirals? Or will there be deep folds? Or shallow? The opening of each reproductive system is unique and you never know what you are going to see with a new species.
Q: How do dolphins mate in the wild?
A: It is very variable. Some species, like dusky dolphins, copulate belly to belly. Bottlenose dolphins appear to form a T-shaped formation, where the male crosses the female exactly at her midline. Harbor porpoises are truly unique in that they wait for the female to come to the surface of the water to breathe, then they jump out of the water and try to hook it with their penises.
Q: Could it be that some of the positions are just for fun?
A: This is what the whole point of research is to understand. They have sex all year round even when they can only conceive during certain times of the year. Looking at how the genitals align, we can now say that certain body positions are more likely to lead to successful fertilization than others, which could be for purposes other than reproduction. Is it playing? Is it about establishing hierarchies? Does this establish dominance? Does he learn? There could be many functions of sex.
Q: What’s the best and worst thing about this line of research?
A: I think the best thing is how exciting it is. I never told anyone what I did, and they are sick of hearing me talk about it. Also, it was so wrong to study sex, sexual behavior, and genitals for a long time that it is really an under-researched area and there is this huge opening in terms of new directions of research. Looks like the sky is the limit.
The worst part? I don’t know if there is the worst. I really, really love my job.