Friday Weird Science: The Magnificent Mammal Menage a Trois

Jan 21 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

...aka "The Thrilling Whale Threesome"
...aka "Constant Coupling Clubs in Cetacean Coitus"
...aka...I could keep going!

Cause this is more than mammals. It's WHALES, BABY!!! Whales GETTING IT ON. Strap yourselves in, cause we're headed on a journey to the bay, complete with a bendable 8 foot penis.

I do hope we've all had our coffee.


(From Laughing Whale Coffee)

ResearchBlogging.org Mate et al. (heh, poor guy, but that's amazingly appropriate) "Observations of a Female North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Simultaneous Copulation with Two Males: Supporting Evidence for Sperm Competition" Aquatic Mammals, 2005.

(Pictures below NSFW, if you're a whale at work, anyway)

Kudos go out to Mary Roach, who sent the citation, and to the folks who first posted the picture. I THINK it was Deep Sea News, but I can't find it on there...

Before we get to the goods, let's talk about the Right Whale. The one featured here is the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Right whales are baleen whales which feed by filtering plankton out of the water. We all know that we're supposed to save the whales, but the right whale is of particular interest, as it was hunted a LOT until the world finally banned it in 1937. Since then the main thing the right whale is used for is for whale watching, and BOY did these scientists get an EYEFUL.

You see, the male right whale is...pretty well endowed. Ok, REALLY well endowed. Male right whales are, on average, between 13-16m long. The penis is around 2-2.5m long. 15% of the male's total length. Compare that to the human, average male human height, 1.75m (ish), average penis length, 0.15m = 8%. Buuuurn. Whales got humans beat by a meter...or two.


(That is the penis of a killer whale. The whale is lying on its back. Their penises are only about a meter. Source.)

Not only that, whale penises are BENDY. Due to the potential mechanics of whale mating, this isn't too surprising. During whale mating, you'll get a whole group of males crowding and shoving around a female, waiting for an in. In many documented cases, the female will roll on her back, while the male is nearby on his side. He then snakes his penis up and around to get to the female's vagina. Obviously it's good to be both long and bendy.

That's NOTHING to the BALLS. Right whales have the biggest testicles of any mammal on the planet. Together the balls weigh a TON. A literal TON. We're not even going to do the human comparison because it will just make everyone feel inadequate.

And it's the testicles that are actually of interest here. This is because testicle size in mammals has been correlated in other species the number of MATES. The more mates a female has, the more competition for a given male to become the lucky one. This results in males producing higher volumes of sperm and penetrate deeper in order to try and overwhelm with numbers. And for more sperm...you need some bigger balls. Not to mention a longer penis. A good example of this is the rat, which has balls so big they drag the floor in some strains. This is also why HUMANS have relatively small testicles compared to their body mass. Human females don't tend toward having a lot of mates at the same time, and so a guy doesn't have to produce large amounts of sperm to ensure he's the one.

So some scientists have hypothesized that, because the male right whale also has huge balls, it might also have a lot of competition for the ladies during mating season, and that this leads to large balls and large amounts of sperm. And...they were right. More right than they thought. Because right whales do group up to get near a female at the surface (called a Surface Active Group). But unlike humpback whales, who will fight aggressively to get the girl, right whales are...a little more cooperative.

Imagine this. You're on a research vessel out at sea in the Bay of Fundy, prime summer cruising area for feeding and nursing right whales. You're not doing anything kinky, just attaching research tags to whales to determine position and feeding habits.

And then you see it. A Surface Active Group of two males and a female, rolling around and jostling at the surface. The female rolls over, presents her underside above the waves, and then...

That, my friends, is what we in the scientific call "simultaneous intromission". Two whale penises. One whale vagina. You can do the math.

I'm not kidding. I know it's hard to see so I'll give you some pointers.

The black arrows point out the individuals. You can see the female there is on her back, while the males on either side are rolled on their sides, their penises each going in to her vagina.

Now THAT is some major sperm competition!

And the authors point out that this provides a good bit of support for the hypothesis as to why male right whales have big testicles. The whales may not be fighting, but when they've got competition THIS intense, some bigger balls are most definitely in order.

Mate, B., Duley, P., Lagerquist, B., Wenzel, F., Stimpert, A., & Clapham, P. (2005). Observations of a Female North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Simultaneous Copulation with Two Males: Supporting Evidence for Sperm Competition Aquatic Mammals, 31 (2), 157-160 DOI: 10.1578/AM.31.2.2005.157

39 responses so far

  • Sue Ross says:

    Science + Humor .... doesn't get any better. Well Done, Sir... Well Done!

  • Hel says:

    OMG we can see double penetration inside the same hole outside porn movie :) I have to talk about that to in my blog too :)

  • Tom says:

    Another article to link to, if someone says something in their opinion is "unnatural". Always good to open their eyes to see what happens in nature!

  • Absolutely incredible. This has made my day. This is my new party story. Great job writing it up too!

  • I'm in an open relationship, so I need to send this to both my husband and my boyfriend RIGHT NOW.

  • becca says:

    One wonders why hentai always seems to focus on cephalopods and not cetaceans.

  • SamW says:

    I am disgusted and fascinated at the same time... it's surprising how often animals have their penis out in nature yet how rarely it is mentioned.

  • gerty-z says:

    Fantastic!! An excellent review.

  • Wowser says:

    Wow. Given the "bendy" and all, am I the only one who sees the resemblance to air-to-air refueling?

    Admittedly, I don't think we've tried it from two tankers at the same time.

  • Blake R says:

    "HUMANS have relatively small testicles compared to their body mass."

    I don't know about humans relative to animals generally, but human testicles are relatively large compared to other primates. We're only slightly smaller than chimps, but much larger than gorillas, suggesting a non-trivial amount of sperm competition.

    • scicurious says:

      I'm talking about mammals in general, but I think that's true that we're larger than most primates. Doesn't mean that the men have large amounts of sperm competition necessarily, though we probably have some sperm competition, we are nothing on the rat, or the whale, apparently. Also, sperm competition isn't the only way to ensure daddyhood, there are lots of behavioral adaptations and other evolutionary methods that don't require big balls.

    • Sarah says:

      Gorillas live in groups of one male and many females, young males are kicked out of the group when they reach a certain age. I don't think Gorillas need their sperm to compete much.

  • KBHC says:

    Yo Sci, just posting here what I posted on Twitter, as asked. Consider me the token anthropologist.

    Human males have moderately-sized testes, but, if I remember correctly, relatively large penises for a primate. Testes size is related to sperm competition, and sperm competition is a kind of covert, non-violent intrasexual competition. That is, if you need to compete with other males for mates, but you also need to get along with them, you probably don't want to beat the crap out of each other each time a female is in estrus. So, the competition occurs in the volume of sperm you can produce instead of how well you can punch someone.

    Gorillas have pretty small testes, because they have a "harem" style of mating -- one silverback and several females. The silverback protects his females and their offspring from intruding loner males with his big muscles -- so he doesn't need lots of sperm. When a female wants to mate he isn't competing with anyone but himself, so it doesn't make sense to waste the energy. Instead, he needs to focus on maintaining that harem and try to avoid a hostile takeover.

    Chimpanzees are kind of in the other direction. They have what's called a promiscuous mating style, which is just as it sounds: everyone has sex with everyone (that's not to say it's random, just that there aren't long term harems or monogamous pairings or anything). Also, chimpanzees have male philopatry, meaning the males stay in their natal groups their whole lives, while the females leave when they hit puberty. This means that each group of chimps has a bunch of males related to each other in it (and therefore they have some stake in the other chimps doing okay in the reproductive success area). This also means the females tend not to be related, and tend not to have much reason to work together. So, since the males have to get along, have some reproductive stake in each other, and are guarding their territory from other groups of marauding males, they need to get along. So instead of things coming to blows every time a female has a nice sexual swelling, they try to compete with each other with their sperm.

    So... human male testes being somewhere in the middle in terms of size could mean a lot of things. It means we probably didn't have harems in our recent history, yet we do have polygyny. Some people think our testes size suggests monogamy, but we don't actually see a ton of monogamy in modern humans (depending on how you measure it). I also have no idea how plastic testes size is, or rather, how quickly it can change over the course of the evolution of a lineage.

    Hope this helps!

    • Jon says:

      You say that "Human males have moderately-sized testes, but, if I remember correctly, relatively large penises for a primate."

      Not to get too off topic, but I just realized I've heard the sperm competition explanation for the size of testes several times now in various places. But despite a lot of talk about penis size, I don't think I've ever heard anyone speak about what sort of evolutionary pressures there are on it. I'm wondering, is there a common pressure on penis size which applies to multiple species, or is it usually just a by-product of the rest of the organisms physiology? (Like the whales up above, who need to be able to reach up and around.)

      • x says:

        IIRC bitches have vagina and uterus in line (as compared to humans where there is a bend between vagina and uterus) and a dog penis penetrates into the uterus. Not sure if the penis is thus relatively long, or the vagina relatively short. Talking about size dogs penises are definitely enormously thick at the knot which makes dogs lock together for about 1/2 hour and seals the vagina to make sure sperm goes in instead of dripping out.

        Pig have a pretty long (and thin) penis which delivers sperm into the uterus as well.

  • Brachyteles says:

    Since this touched off nostalgia for a properly wasted study hall way back when:

    mass of right whale testicles: 10^6 grams
    mass of human testicles, top end of range: 30 grams
    volume of human ejaculate ranges up to about 10 ml, using 5 for purposes of getting a conservative number
    and a couple of iffy assumptions about proportional production

    (10^6 / 30) * 5 = 166.6 repeating liters or a touch over 44 gallons

    Or a "money shot" that would overflow your average claw foot bathtub.

  • IrishMom says:

    Science is so much fun...

  • Kevin Z says:

    And um, why isn't that WEARING A GLOVE WHILE TOUCHING THE WHALES PENIS!? ewww

  • Angel says:

    Oh I love this article. Not only is it science mix with humor but its educational too. Sexual education. I was not expecting to read that that females whales like double penetration though. I got to give a high 5 to all the right female whales their my kind of whales ;p

  • Ericka says:

    That cannot be unseen.

    MS paint diagram was very helpful.

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  • Phil Clapham says:

    Just to clarify... The photo's mine (the wonderful Mary Roach is a pal of mine and asked if she could send it out) - it was taken in the Bay of Fundy during a tagging research cruise. And the paper - Mate et al. - intentionally had Bruce Mate as the first author because of the obvious humor involved. We actually argued about it; since I'd written the paper, Bruce wanted me to take the lead spot, but I laughed and said, "No - you HAVE to be first author. Think about it!"

    Btw, there's a very bad joke buried in the paper if anyone can find it (hint: it's the answer to the question, "What did the Mexican father name his two sons?")

    • scicurious says:

      OMG awesome! I will attribute the photo, of course. Thanks for coming by!

    • scicurious says:

      ...and were you scarred for life after seeing that? :)

      • Phil Clapham says:

        No, I'll be scarred for life if Rick Santorum is elected president :)

        Btw, Bruce Mate of Mate et al. is the only person I know who has actually been attacked by a whale penis. Years ago he was in a small inflatable boat with a female gray whale underneath hiding from an amorous male when said male's penis ended up coming OVER the pontoon of the Zodiac and slithering around on the floorboards, looking for a vagina. As Bruce said, he suddenly realized with horror that he was sitting in the world's largest diaphragm.

  • Liliam says:

    ahah very good! that´s nice to see that sexist specch supported by "scients" in "psicology evolucionism"( or whatever it´s called) about "female are monogamus in nature" is a f* lie!

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