Thursday, May 14, 2009

How do Whales "Do It?"

What I'm reading: Colby Rebuilt, by Debra Webb

The chaos continues. The painters begin today. We will probably be one step ahead of them in clearing things so they can deal with the walls. Rather than leave this space blank, or bore you with the delights of clearing and packing, I'm going to turn this space over to a friend and former colleague.

As some of you might remember, I used to work for a scientific organization that dealt with marine mammals, even though all I did was manage their membership database and conference registration. The following piece was written by Dr. Phillip Clapham, a large whale biologist (he's not large, the whales he studies are). I think you'll enjoy it. Then again, maybe it's just because I'm married to a biologist that I find these things interesting.

Warning: the article is about sex, so if the thought of these enormous creatures 'going at it' isn't your thing, come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Homicide- Hussey's venture into the paranormal. Actually, even if whale sex is your thing, you're invited back tomorrow, too.

As a whale biologist, I'm used to receiving all kinds of email enquiries about whale biology, and these frequently involve whale sex. "How do whales, you know, DO it?" is a pretty common question. Recently, I've spent a significant chunk of time answering questions from friends and members of the public about some alleged blue whale mating trivia that has been doing the rounds of the Internet. In an effort to resolve this issue, I provide here a correction to said fake trivia - as well as some real whale sex trivia to replace it.

You've probably seen the blue whale item. It says that male blue whales produce huge quantities of sperm when they mate (figures of up to 400 kg have been quoted back to me), and that "90% of this goes into the water". The "trivia" concludes by noting that no one should wonder why the sea is so salty. Ha ha.

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This little factoid sounds cute, but it's not accurate. No one has ever seen blue whales mate, so we have no idea how efficient this act is. Since Nature is usually very good at maximizing efficiency, it's very unlikely that much of the semen enters the water rather than its intended target in the female anatomy.

Although mating has never been observed in blue whales, it's been seen in some other whale species. It's likely that blues are similar in the way they get things done. In other whales, the very mobile tip of the male's penis (which is fibro-elastic rather than vascular as in humans) reaches over and inserts itself into the female's vagina. Mating is quick, and the only way that any semen would be spilled into the water is if the female suddenly decided to disengage at the critical moment (how inconsiderate of her). This is certainly possible, but again, no one's seen the act of copulation in blue whales, so we don't know.

Needless to say, the volume of sperm produced by a male blue whale in a single mating attempt has also never been calculated. While it's safe to say that it's large, we don't know details. And in terms of, well, endowment, blue whales - let's be frank here - do not stack up very well to other whales.

Let's look at some figures. Blue whales are the largest of all the whales, and indeed are the largest animals ever to have lived in our planet's history. At maximum weights approaching 200 tons and lengths of more than 100 feet, they make dinosaurs look like lightweights. A large male blue whale of around 26 meters (85 feet) would weigh well over 100 tons. That male's testes would weigh around 70 kg (150 lbs) for the pair.

Now while this may not sound like something that you'd want to have dropped on you from a great height, 70 kg is in fact very small relative to body size. If you want to look at the true he-men of the whale world, the blue whale is probably the last animal you'd pick. So which whale would you look at instead? I'm glad you asked...

This would be the right whale. Right whales are large, rather rotund animals that live in both hemispheres. There are three species, two of which (the North Atlantic and North Pacific rights) are, by the way, critically endangered thanks largely to whaling.

A large male right whale would be around 17 meters (55 feet) and would weigh about 75 tons - much smaller than a big blue. So how much do a right whale's testes weigh? OK, get ready for this. The combined weight of a right whale's two testes is...

One ton. Yep, ONE TON! As Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up.

OK, OK. I know what all you guys want to know next (and probably some of you women too), so to save myself from endless email enquiries, here's the parallel statistic. Right whales also have a longer penis than any other whale, or indeed anything else on earth. The average length of a right whale's member is around 2.3 meters (7.5 feet), or about 14% of its body length. And in case you're wondering, both penis and testes are internal (guys, you wouldn't want all that additional drag if you spent your life moving through the water, now would you?) But the penis can be extruded outside the body for mating.

So there you go. Right whales have such huge testes because their mating system is based on what's called sperm competition. Female right whales will mate serially with multiple males. Consequently, each male tries to produce a huge volume of sperm to out-compete that of the male who was, er, there, before him.

As a final slut-related note, it is anatomically possible for female right whales to mate with two males at the same time, and this has been seen on occasion. One male will lie on each side and the tip of each penis enters the female at the same time. Porn movies have nothing on these guys.

Don't forget - Homicide - Hussey's paranormal chapter concludes tomorrow. You won't want to miss it.


Jess said...

Thanks, Phil! Always good to have more facts about sex. And better that it's not written by one's own mom.

Terry Odell said...

And what makes you think you arrived on this planet in anything other than the usual fashion?

Jess said...

I know I arrived in the usual fashion, but it doesn't make hearing about it less creepy! ;-)

jean hart stewart said...

I think this is hysterical. Don't know how I can work it into one of my books though. Jean

Terry Odell said...

Jean, Christopher Moore already did in his novel, "Fluke." (The best part about reading that book for me was recognizing a bunch of the characters, either by real name or description, from my work with the marine mammal folks.)

Carly Carson said...


Your posters are always interesting. Thanks.