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Research from TAMU-CC professor helps understand dolphin reproduction

Dolphin reproductive organs similar to humans
bottlenose dolphin.jpg
Posted at 6:14 PM, Jan 25, 2022

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Dr. Dara Orbach is an assistant professor of marine biology at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi. Earlier this year, Orbach, along with other researchers, published a study that was inspired by previous research, indicating that animals other than humans have sex for pleasure, including dolphins.

“Dolphins are very social animals, and they mate for reasons besides conception. They mate to work out social bonds and dominance relationships, and it also is important in play and social learning,” Orbach said. “In dolphins, they have [sex] all year, so the thought was maybe they have it because it’s a fun experience, or that there’s some sort of pleasure affiliated with it. So, that was the momentum, or the idea behind the research.”

Over the course of the study, the researchers observed 'Evidence of a Functional Clitoris in Dolphins’, which happens to be the name of the paper.

“Our knowledge of clitoris morphology is quite rare,” she said. “It’s been highly stigmatized as something that is socially faux pas.”

Since the paper was published, the story has been shared in the New York Times, New York Post, and was even talked about in a segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Orbach said she is grateful the paper has been shared, and hopes it brings a spotlight to the science.

“It’s really important, I think, to make science accessible to people,” she said. “So, the idea that someone might watch the Stephen Colbert Show and see this report, and say, ‘hey, did you know dolphins have sex for pleasure?’ at the dinner table… to take science and make it more accessible and to increase scientific literacy, is definitely a priority of scientists across the world.”

However, while the subject is taboo, Orbach wants to highlight the fact that rigorous and legitimate work went into the research.

“I do recognize that studying dolphin clitorises, there’s going to be some fun media with it,” she said. “This showcases how we can break down stereotypes about social norms, and that science is science. So, whether I’m studying the feet of mice, or the vaginas of a dolphin, it still is rigorous science, and should be accessible to the public.”

With the knowledge that dolphins experience pleasure during sexual intercourse, people can apply what we know about humans and apply it to the animals to help understand the breeding of the animal.

“With humans, we know that when females have an orgasm, there are contractions in the vagina, and that helps with the uptake of sperm. So if the female has a pleasurable experience, the vagina is contracting, she’s more likely to conceive from that event,” Orbach said. “So, if we do find out that females of other animals are experiencing pleasure, and there’s more vaginal contractions, that could absolutely somehow influence our ability to assist with these different procedures to breed different animals in human-managed facilities.”

This research can be replicated with other animals, and help with the reproduction of species that are in need of human intervention.

“In terms of these captive breeding programs, it can be really important for exotic and endangered animals, as a way to conserve them,” she said.

Dr. Sarah Piwetz is the stranding biologist at the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The organization, based out of Galveston, monitors the entire Texas Gulf Coast and helps reduce stranded marine mammals and retrieve deceased animals.

Piwetz said the research published in the paper will hopefully inspire people to get involved in the conservation of marine mammals across Texas.

“It’s exciting, new work that no one else is really doing, and it generates a lot of excitement and interest,” she said. “So, one of our core missions is conservation, and of course one of our ways we can best conserve animals is to instill excitement into young generations across the board.”

Orbach said it is still too early to expect other scientists to reach out about the study inspiring similar research, but she said she has been told other research she’s done has served as an inspiration for others, and hopes this project will do the same.

“Techniques we developed to study these animals are being applied to other animals, which is really exciting, seeing that we are innovators in the field, and coming up with novel ways that are helping conserve species across the board,” she said.