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Getting to Know Whale Vaginas in 7 Steps

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s not easy to study a whale vagina. But it is necessary.

Right now, penises get far more attention than vaginas in the science world. (It’s also apparent in the museum scene, too—sadly, today, there’s no vagina equivalent to rival the Icelandic Phallocological Museum). Surprisingly, the research imbalance is likely due to longstanding gender stereotypes and not perhaps the more common assumption that it’s just easier to observe and study penises than vaginas.

Credit: Gregory "Greg" Smith via Flickr

As science journalist Ed Yong recently noted, this is a troublesome trend. First, a gender bias in research subjects skews our basic understanding of sexual selection and evolution; as a result of a preference for sperm and penis studies over female genital investigations, we have underestimated the role of female choice and selection in influencing the course of evolution.

Second, and on a more practical level: without basic understanding of reproductive strategy, we can’t effectively manage natural populations.  If the goal of fisheries management is to optimize the growth potential of wild populations, we’ve got to know the basics about what makes a population grow (successful sex and reproduction) and shrink (mortality).

This is especially important when it comes to endangered or vulnerable species, like marine mammals; we need to know how, when, and where they reproduce in order to accurately predict how our actions (fishing, coastal development, pollution) may affect a species’ survival. To do this requires understanding both sides of the mating equation.

But, let’s be honest – all gender biases aside, studying vaginas can be a formidable challenge, especially in ocean-roaming species such as whales and dolphins. Just consider the logistics. Their hosts live far offshore where we can’t see them and even when we do find them it’s tough to get close and challenging to stay long enough to witness them in the act. And while we can catch glimpses of dolphin penises ready for action, it is far more difficult to figure out what is happening up in their vaginas. So how do we do it?

Sarah Mesnick following sperm whales in the Gulf of California in 2009. (Courtesy of Sarah Mesnick)

I turned to my friend and colleague, Dr. Sarah Mesnick, who works with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, for answers. She works on reproduction in marine mammals. If anyone can talk animal vagina science, it’s her. So I asked her point blank: How do you study a whale vagina? And then I crafted the following step-by-step guide. For those of you interested in the nitty-gritty of animal sex research, it’s a roadmap for getting intimate with some of the largest, most convoluted vaginas on the planet. You’re welcome.

Step 1: Leverage Victorians’ obsession with sea creatures
They might have appeared prude, but back in the day, naturalists didn’t shy away from the chance to get up close and personal with these mysterious mega “fish.” When a marine mammal washed up on shore, the local scientist would go down, do a dissection, and take copious notes, including sketching and describing in great detail the reproductive bits of the animal.

Meek, A. 1918. The Reproductive Organs of Cetacea. J Anat. 52 (Pt 2): 186–210.

Mesnick notes, “It’s rare to do this today. Remember a few months ago, when they discovered that new knee ligament? We think we know all there is to know about human anatomy, but we don’t. But back in the 19th century they knew they didn’t know it all, so they wrote really detailed descriptions.” Mesnick uses these old papers like treasure maps. They lead one through what turns out to be an astonishingly diverse assortment of female reproductive structures.

Hunter, J. and Banks. J. 1787. Observations on the Structure and Oeconomy of Whales. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 77: 371-450.

Step 2: Ask a stranger to FedEx a whale vagina
Dusty old papers can only get one so far, so you’ve got to really get your hands dirty. And that means dissections. But where do you get specimens of a whale or dolphin, especially since they are protected? Across the U.S. and in other countries, there are standardized protocols for dealing with stranded marine mammals that wash up on shore. When one strands and dies, scientists want to know why, so they conduct a necropsy (an animal autopsy).

Mesnick has a freezer full of whale reproductive tracts sent from all over. “We reach out to people who find these animals and ask them to save the reproductive tract and send it to us. I collaborate with a graduate student, Dara Orbach from Texas A&M, who is also collecting reproductive tracts from her contacts.  Just this week, we received a box of tracts that was shipped to us from New Zealand.” And when she says “tract” she means the whole kit and caboodle, from the clitoris (yup, female whales and dolphins have a clitoris!), up and around the vagina, uterus and the uterine horns (aka fallopian tubes in women).

Meek, A. 1918. The Reproductive Organs of Cetacea. J Anat. 52 (Pt 2): 186–210.

She admits it’s an awkward conversation, even among scientists. But it works. As long as there are no mail mix-ups:

“Awesome! My new microscope arrived… ?? What the @#$%?”

Step 3: Make use of bycatch
Besides the stranding network, marine mammals accidently caught by commercial fishing boats can also be collected by fisheries observers. These specimens are often housed in life history collections stored at museums or the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, some going back decades.

Step 4: Have a back up generator
This one is mine. It’s well known that decomposing whale has a stench like no other. Can you imagine what that room would smell like if the freezers failed? Of course, there would also be the loss of invaluable research specimens. So, power source – back it up.

Step 5: Assemble an A-team that includes expert drivers
Veterinarians and others who work in medical schools and have experience with live animals are key collaborators on Mesnick’s team. “These guys are really good at driving tiny cameras around the reproductive tracts of marine mammals,” she says, and can help visualize the 3D structure of the tracts using techniques such as CT scans and endoscopy.

Step 6: Grab the grill tongs
Whale and dolphin vaginas come in all sizes. Mesnick currently works on ones from eight to ten inches up to two feet. “You can easily fit your whole arm up in there,” says Mesnick. And she has. All I can think of is what the hell do you use for a speculum Then, I learn this: the big baleen whales can be over 100 feet in length, so their reproductive tracts likely wind for several feet. That’s a vagina you could walk through. Mesnick notes, “I haven’t gotten to work on one of those yet, but I can’t wait to!”

Step 7: Bring your GPS
Mesnick is finding that, unlike most mammals, whales and dolphins have remarkably complex and convoluted vaginas. Normally, a mammalian vagina is a simple tube or cavity, with the cervix at the far end. But this is not so in some whales and dolphins, where a series of flaps, folds, blind alleys and funnels presents a dizzying maze for sperm to negotiate. “It’s a gauntlet. Our very first one, when we opened it up, there were so many structures in there we could not figure out how a sperm would be able to swim from one end to the other,” Mesnick says.

They found that some species have multiple funnels. Others have flaps or multiple folds. These structures were first described as a “pseudocervix” because they superficially looked like the true cervix. Not every species looks this complicated; other species have far less ornamentation.

The diversity is one of the reasons these structures are so hard to map: there are no consistent reference points to know where you are once you are exploring them – each vagina looks different. As Mesnick notes, “We’re getting to the point now that if we open a tract up we can tell you the species, just by looking at the structures in the vagina.” Now I’m thinking vagina-based species identification books.

There are several theories on why these structures exist, including that the twists and turns are designed to help keep water (which is fatal to sperm) out of the tract. But as she continues to compare more and more internal sex structures of dolphins and whales, Mesnick thinks there might be more to it: “The simple question is, if all cetacean species mate in the water—which they do—and the flaps and funnels were just to keep water out, then why is there such diversity among species?”

Good question. And you know she has a good answer. But she’s keeping it to herself for now, until she finishes a few more dissections, just to see that her theories hold up. I did get a hint: it likely has to do with cetaceans’ mating system. Which means whale vaginas can tell us a whole lot more than just how big a whale penis is.

Hunter, J. and Banks. J. 1787. Observations on the Structure and Oeconomy of Whales. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 77: 371-450.

Lastly, and it’s not an official step to knowing whale vaginas, but it is critical to understanding whale reproduction: you’ve got to check out the male apparatus, too. Mesnick stresses the point: “A whole other side of my research is looking at the male anatomy and this is where we get some of our other predictions about the form and function of the female anatomy… So yes, I look at both sexes, because this is how we get the most complete understanding of the reproductive strategies of the sexes.”

You can expect a blog soon on the male side of the equation. I wouldn’t want to be biased, after all. I’ll be continuing to follow Mesnick’s research as she and colleagues wrap up the mystery of meandering whale vaginas over the next year. Stay tuned for updates.

And apologies to those of you who thought this post was going to be a tourist’s guide to San Diego. I hope you found it educational nevertheless.

Marah J. Hardt About the Author: Dr. Marah Hardt is a marine scientist and storyteller working to build a sustainable future for people and the sea. She is the Research Co-Director at Future of Fish and currently working on her first book, Sex in the Sea ( Follow on Twitter @Marahh2o.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. Lacota 8:50 pm 06/11/2014

    “the more common assumption that it’s just easier to observe and study penises than vaginas.” that has been my experience.

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  2. 2. Mark Robinson 11:15 pm 06/11/2014

    The complex and convoluted anatomy of some cetacean vaginas has mostly likely evolved due to antagonistic mating behaviour; ie aggressive males forcibly copulating with females. The blind alleys, etc provide the female with more control over which males are successful in impregnating her.

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  3. 3. TeresaWagner 10:31 am 06/12/2014

    Another long held sexist bias in this field is the assumption, stated as fact, that only humpback males sing. I have been with several singers in the water in Silver Bank who were definitely females, as have many other people. And then there is the assumption that the singing is all about mating.????

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  4. 4. Heteromeles 2:17 pm 06/12/2014

    I won’t disagree about the antagonistic mating hypothesis.

    However, there’s another possibility, which is that the vagina helps serve as something like a pressure regulator, so that the pregnant female can dive normally without endangering the developing fetus.

    There’s medical literature on the effects of breathing pressurized oxygen while pregnant (both on human SCUBA divers and on rodent models), and it shows a small but significant possibility of birth defects related to working under pressure.

    It’s worth checking, in any case. The nice thing is that there might be commercial spinoffs, if it turns out that some sophisticated vaginal shape helps protect a delicate fetus from rapid and repeated changes in pressure. I’m not sure what, of course, but we’re always trying to protect fragile loads from pressure changes.

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  5. 5. rock johny 2:59 pm 06/12/2014

    It’s about time more study was devoted to the elusive “San Diego”.

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  6. 6. Anchovy_Rancher 1:37 pm 06/13/2014

    rockjohnny- Uh…”what?” Were there supposed to be more words that actually formed a complete sentence or…? You’re missing an objective noun here, Pal.

    Now, “…the elusive Sandy Eggo” would have worked. (Thanks, Lou)

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  7. 7. Buddha322 7:41 pm 06/13/2014

    San Diegology.

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  8. 8. mjhardt 2:26 pm 06/14/2014

    Hi Mark Robinson- that is indeed one of the theories Dr. Mesnick is looking into. As for protection for the fetus against pressure change, Heteromeles, I had not heard of that one. Will pass the idea along. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    And as for more studies devoted to the elusive “San Diego”…you’re welcome. :)

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  9. 9. SteveMont 4:39 pm 06/18/2014

    While the first BS I ever earned was in Biology, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the whale’s genitalia. I was also surprised to find out that female whales possess a clitoris. Of course that raises a number of other questions, for example, how big is the average cetacean clitoris? Does it have the same function in whales as it does in humans? Are female whales capable of having orgasms?
    Interesting article, thanks!

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  10. 10. Jerry Brown 5:53 pm 06/19/2014

    It took a lot of ovaries for Dr Mesnick to publish that study. Not only is it important but hilariously funny, while still noting the sexism even in our study of other mammals. I hope she and others remain cognisant of the fact that Moby Dick is not a venereal disease while considering future whale anatomy studies.

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  11. 11. qdtqdt 6:55 pm 06/19/2014

    Good grief. I am speechless. It never occurred to me that whales had penises or vaginas.

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  12. 12. Diesel67 5:20 pm 07/8/2014

    I think I’d rather study human vaginas. We are in desperate need of a female equivalent for Viagra.

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