Animal masturbation

“Modern scientists agree: virtually all the higher animals – including parakeets and pigeons – are occasionally involved with their own genitalia.”
– Mels Van Driel

Lions, primates, bats, walruses, deer, zebra, sheep, warthogs, hyenas, whales, dophins, cats and dogs are just some of the animals that are known to masturbate.  They may use their flippers, their tails, their feet or their mouth.  They rub their nipples, grab their genitals, rub against inanimate objects and essentially employ all the methods than humans do.

Female ferrets use smooth stones and penguins literally get their rocks off on rocks.  Female porcupines are quite creative – they grab a stick between their front paws then ride it like a broom.  As they drag the stick around with them the jolting and vibrating stimulates them.

Male bats, male walruses and female hyenas engage in auto-fellatio – female hyenas have a phallus-esque clitoris.  Orangutans make use of twigs and leaves whilst tortoises bang their penis against hard objects.

Deer rub their antlers on the ground and can take as little as 15 seconds to satisfy themselves.  Cetaceans rub themselves against the ocean floor.

Male elephants suck on their penis with their trunk and females nibble the nipples between their front legs whilst striking their vulva with their tail.

Male marine iguanas who don’t have much chance of mating – or who may start mating with a female but are likely to get kicked off by another male before they’ve copulated – are known to masturbate whenever a female goes by.  It’s thought that this is because by masturbating they speed up the time it takes to ejaculate and thus, when they do get a chance with a girl, they can do the deed very quickly, before they get kicked off.

Other theories about why animals masturbate include mismatched sex ratios within a population, stress relief, being lower down the rank and hence not having the chance to have sex and the fresh ejaculate theory.  The latter is the idea that “masturbating clears out the old sperm faster and makes room for newer, healthier sperm.  Healthier sperm equals healthier babies” (Verdolin).

And of course, animals may masturbate because they find it pleasurable.

“While scientists debate the evolutionary reason for masturbation, there’s no doubt that humans are not alone in their self-pleasure from time to time.”
— Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Senior Writer

With animals that are similar to us, it can be easy to imagine how they have stimulate themselves but you may be wondering about birds.  I was.  Most birds have a cloaca – an opening used for sex and for expelling waste – and male birds will bend their tails under an object – such as a toy – and rub their cloaca against it.  Females also rub their cloaca against an object but instead lift their tail and back up onto the item in question.

There isn’t much research into masturbation in the animal kingdom at this point so much of this is based on observations, both in the wild and in zoos where obviously there is no guarantee that the behaviour is natural.  Species in which studies have been carried out include primates, domestic animals such as horses and ground squirrels.

The ground squirrels study was suggested that male masturbation may act as a form of genital grooming.  As saliva has antibacterial properties, masturbation may reduce their risk of catching an STD.  It may also clean the reproductive tracts.  But this is clearly an area that requires a lot more research!

Whilst this blog post is entirely a bit of fun and a way to discuss masturbation in a less taboo way, it has a second purpose.  That is to dispel all those myths that we should only have sex to procreate because it’s what’s natural.  If you’ve read any of my animal and sex posts, you’ll know that sex in the animal kingdom is diverse, interesting and uninhibited.  Sex has evolved to be pleasurable for many species (although not all it must be added) in order for the species to continue and why wouldn’t we – humans and other animals – engage in something that makes us feel good?

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Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex.  Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!

The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction.  We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity.  That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post.  To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.

If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye.  A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female.  Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers.  For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood…  Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females.  A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it.  Whether they want to or not.  Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.

In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs.  For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share.  In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.

If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.

Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case.  A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree.  Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook

We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one.  This is not the case.  And biologically it makes sense.  If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality.  Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with.  For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!

“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right.  They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply.  With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar

When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse.  Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these.  Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm!  The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!

Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course).  Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off…  For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:

“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
Susan Lawler

But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly.  The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!

We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all.  scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species.  Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric…  But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…

There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex.  For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally.  Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…

The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex.  Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.

In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females.  Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves!  That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production…  As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.

All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce.  And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.

Suggested reading:

Hyena: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Cards

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I don’t like hyenas… I didn’t know much about them before this project and they’ve not really grown on me…  But not everyone agrees:

“with her iron jaw and massive clitoris
the beauteous hyena is no more and no less than a queen”
Noah’s Notes (Preliminary) by Penelope Shuttle

As I’ve learned about the different animals covered in this deck I have developed respect and understanding of them and surprising creatures have captured my heart – the vulture, the crow, the earthworm etc.  And despite not really being a fan of the hyena, I do still appreciate the role they play in the web of life.

They are similar to the vulture in that they are essential for cleaning up the environment and without them we could end up overrun with rotting corpses and all the bacteria etc which comes with that.  They are probably best known for scavenging but they do also hunt, although they prefer to be patient and let someone else do the hard work.

A lot of nature documentaries show hyenas trying to get a kill from a lion and indeed, working as a group, they can be successful.  But watch out for karma!  In times of scarce food, lions have been known to steal food from hyenas as well!

They hunt or search for food at night and into dawn and have one of the strongest bites on the planet.  This is not an animal you’d want to stumble across in the dark!  And yet, as humanity spreads, we are encroaching on their territory and human hyena interaction is increasing, which in turn increases hatred and fear of them.

Life in the hyena cackle (genuinely the name for a group of hyenas!) can be tough.  There is a complex social structure and if you’re a male hyena, you’re out of luck.  Especially if you aren’t the lead male.  In order of importance, we have a lead female at the top who basically rules things.  Then come all the other females, their order depending on things including how important their mother was.  Then, after all the female hyenas, come the males.  Males are often left to babysit which must be a bit galling when even a new born female hyena outranks you…

And if you’re a male hyena, you exist pretty much for sex, but only on the female’s terms!  Females tend to go for patient males rather than the aggressive males, possibly as a way of reiterating their dominance.  Regardless of why, like with hunting, we are reminded that patience pays off.

And in case all of this doesn’t make you feel inadequate, the female hyena has genitals which look like a 6-7 inch long penis, although it is actually one of the largest clitoris in the world.  This led to the belief that the hyena was a hermaphrodite.

Life isn’t all fun and games for the female though… Imagine trying to have sex or give birth?  To reproduce the female essentially has to turn her ‘penis’ inside out so it appears like a more traditional vagina for penetration and then they have to give birth from their penis like genitalia which for first time mothers often results in the death of the baby hyena… I’ll leave you to consider what symbolic meaning this may have for you…

In addition to being dominant and having a pseudo-penis, female hyenas have high levels of testosterone and are physically larger than male hyenas which may be a suggestion to channel your masculine energy or stereotypical male traits in order to get what you want.  I’m not by any means suggesting we should all ‘man up’ but sometimes a situation calls for a different approach.  Equally, maybe you need to ‘man down’ and embrace the less traditionally masculine role that the male hyena has.  Or just throw gender out the window all together!

Hyenas are often thought of as as frightening, primitive and best avoided.  They are associated with witchcraft in some cultures and are thought to influence people’s spirits, rob graves, and have the soul of a demon inside them.  Perhaps it is this demon that cackles when the hyena opens her mouth?  Laughter has long been associated with this feral animal so if this card has come up for you, you may want to look at what your sarcasm and jokes are masking.

To sum up… patience can be a good tactic to get what you want, karma may come back to bite you, look at what lies behind your humour and don’t get too caught up in your gender role.