The fifth in the occasional series, Thank God It’s Penis Friday.
In the winter of 1996, I was inducted into the research team at Marine World Africa USA’s Marine Research Center like everybody else – with a clipboard. On it was a list of dolphin behaviors that I would spend the next three months watching. Maternal, aggressive, sexual, feeding, sleeping, etcetera. Of course, my first question was obvious.
“Uh, how do you know if it’s sexual?”
“Oh, you’ll know,” was all I got in return.
So we set to work. The tank I was watching was populated by four adolescent males: Avalon, Norman, Brisbee, and Liberty. It started the first day, just after feeding. The boys were tumbling around, wrestling and nipping at each other when suddenly, what can only be described as a cross between a pink cigar and the baby creature from Alien emerged from Avalon’s pelvis.
It turns out that dolphins, while highly intelligent, are somewhat deficient in the “passionately embracing their lover” department. To overcome this, they have evolved to have a prehensile penis (like a monkey’s tail) that rests below a flap of skin until needed. If a male is lucky enough to persuade a female to give him the time of day, he uses it to not only inseminate, but also hold on.
For those who have never spent time with dolphins, it’s important to know that they have sex a lot. Really a lot. Like many adolescents, the four boys were very excited about their groping little Laffy Taffys. It didn’t matter that there were no females in the tank, the boys would just play with each other (or inanimate objects, or really anything they can find). This is common in the wild as well and some behaviorists have suggested that sexual play for dolphins is a way to create bonds with a partner who will then help you cruise for females.
If that is true, Norman must have been a helluva wing man because he was almost always the target of the other three’s attention. Oftentimes we scientists would work in pairs, one watching, one writing. At the appearance of the little bubble gum cigar, the conversation would go like this.
“Okay, it looks like we have some sexual contact.”
“Forty-five minutes, twenty seconds.”
“Who do you think?”
It might have been our imagination, but it always seemed to us that Norman was just the slightest bit pudgier than the others, leading to the inevitable prison jokes and then swapping of tales about other animals we had studied having sex. As behaviorists we treated sex – even male/male sex – like any other behavior and soon the whole thing became routine and even boring.
That is, until the public came. Because the research facility was also part of a theme park, our viewing window was regularly open to the public. Totally focused on our work, we often wouldn’t notice the visitors until, say, a mom and her 6-year-old were right next to us.
“Look mom, they’re wrestling!” he would say.
And she would start to answer, stop, and look at me. I would slowly shake my head and furrow my brow, whereby she would say, “okay honey, let’s go look at the seals.”
Awkward encounters aside, the dolphin penis, and indeed all whale penises (don’t let anyone tell you the technical name for whale penis is “dork” – it isn’t) solve an important problem. Namely, how do you mate if anatomy forces you to face your partner (cetaceans are among the few animals that do) yet have no arms? Also, in the case of dolphin intercourse, the female is often less than willing and must be chased down, hence the need for a partner. I have no interest in debating the anthropomorphic ethics of dolphin mating beyond the fact that it seems to work for them. Nevertheless in these cases it’s handy to have something to hang on with.
It’s also a reason that one should think twice before shelling out money for a captive “dolphin encounter.” Besides the generally abysmal living conditions of these animals, a fair number of them are more than a little randy and injuries have occurred when an animal took a shine to a female encounterer. One famous 1960’s experiment in dolphin/human cohabitation organized by John Lilly (infamous for giving LSD to dolphins) ended after the female scientist was endlessly hassled by her dolphin roommate looking for affection.
At the end of the day, penises aside, my time at Marine World showed me that perhaps our glorified perception of dolphins has been misguided. Certainly they are highly intelligent, enigmatic creatures that daily astound those humans who work with them. They are highly social, learn quickly, and are highly adept at destroying electronics left too close to the pool’s edge. But like bonobos, their culture – presuming they have one – is far different from our own. It’s as strange to us as alien civilization and seems to involve humping anything that moves – or in many cases, doesn’t.
So as science continues to probe the complexities of dolphin cognition, we must strive not to humanize dolphins any more than we dolphinize humans. And perhaps, someday, those with prehensile penises and those with the normal kind can finally coexist harmoniously together.
Erik Vance is an ecologist-turned-science-writer formerly of Northern California, now based in Mexico City. Last September, he wrote a feature for Discover about dolphin researchers and the conflicts they run into. His uncle does dolphin airbrush art in So. Cal.
Erik & dolphin: Cindy Elardo (Erik apologizes for the braided leather belt, socks-and-Tevas, and ripped pants with – what – long johns underneath; he remembers being a lot more fashionable in the 90s.)