October 3, 2011 | 1
The submissions are now in for The Open Laboratory 2011, an anthology of the best science blogging of the year. There are 721 great science posts in the chase for 52 slots in the anthology! I’m more than flattered that four of my posts were nominated. Three of them are already here on the Scientific American Blog Network: How Do You ID A Dead Osama?, Why Do Women Cry? and Mythbusting 101: Organic > Conventional Agriculture. So this is the last of the four posts which might get a coveted spot among the best science blog posts of the year, originally posted on my old blog in January. Enjoy!
Sexual assault is no laughing matter – unless, of course, the would-be rapist isn’t human. Who doesn’t giggle when they see a small dog humping someone’s leg? But what many people don’t realize is that reverse bestiality – where an animal makes unwanted sexual advances on a person – is a true problem for scientists working in the field where the actions of wild animals are completely unpredictable.
Sure, sexual assault is embarrassing though tolerated when committed by a small, fluffy pomeranian with an overactive sex drive. Most people won’t report the assailant to any kind of authority. It’s even pretty funny when sexual advances are made by large, flightless parrot, even though real harm can be done (as you can see in the video on the right). But what do you do if a much larger creature decides you’re the sexiest thing it’s ever seen?
That is exactly what conservation geneticist Brian Bowen had to ask himself in spring of 2007 when diving off the coast of Australia. It was a beautiful morning for scuba diving. The water was a warm 78.8 ºF with crystal clear visibility of at least 100 feet. Bowen and his team were collecting reef fish specimens for ongoing research into the population genetics and phylogeography of Pacific fish species, when a large, male green sea turtle suddenly approached the divers.
More often than not, sea turtles avoid people. Their natural reaction to scuba divers is to swim away. However, this turtle showed no aversion to the presence of people on his reef. He slowly approached Bowen, staying about six feet off to the side as he passed by. But once behind the confused diver, the turtle suddenly turned around and aimed himself at Bowen’s backside.
Quick to respond, Bowen placed his fish collection device on the side of the turtle, keeping him at a distance. The turtle spun the diver around three times in its attempt to mount, but upon realizing the diver had no intention of allowing such an advance, he eventually gave up and swam away.
|The face of a would-be rapist?|
A large green sea turtle in the water is quite the force to be reckoned with. Bowen estimated this turtle weighed in at over 220 pounds, more than capable of injuring an adult human being. More frighteningly, as mating attempts often involve pinning to the sea floor, these large beasts have the potential to drown an unsuspecting victim. Bowen learned that male sea turtles are known to make these unwanted advances at divers with some frequency, as numerous others have shared similar stories.
Bruce Gernon, an Islamorada real estate agent diving on vacation, recounts a terrible encounter with a large, male loggerhead sea turtle. “The damn thing really overpowered me,” Gernon told local news columnist Bob Epstein. The reptilian attacker pinned him to the sea floor, scaring him half to death. Gernon goes on to describe the attack in detail:
I shoved a lobster at the turtle who inhaled the crustracean, and then I spun out of its grasp. I felt I was free of the encounter, but then the turtle, with renewed interest, grasped me again with its front flippers from the back and around my shoulders. Once again it attempted to pin me to the bottom. All the while the stupid turtle probed me in my backside. Being a strong swimmer and determined not to be molested any further by this deluded loggerhead, I twisted out of its grasp and made for the surface and my boat.
Bowen & Gernon were lucky that their quick reflexes saved them from potentially dangerous and demeaning situations. Others that Epstein spoke to were not so fortunate. Another male diver, who wished to remain anonymous, told Epstein a turtle attacked him twice, pinning him to the bottom. According to Epstein, the turtle eventually “made good its mating attack on this luckless individual.”
These cases serve as a warning to all that animal sexual assaults are serious and dangerous. It’s likely that the frequency of such incidents is even higher, as the social stigma of being the victim of such events is so strong that many attacks likely go unreported. Upon publishing his article, Epstein received at least 10 calls from other victims who had not spoken up previously.
Why do animals shag other species? It’s hard to say. Evolutionarily speaking, there’s no real point in it. Sexing up a member of another species isn’t going to produce offspring. So did the turtle or the parrot mistake their victims for members of their own species? It seems unlikely – but I guess it’s possible. Or were they just so sex crazed, with their hormones on overdrive, that they simply couldn’t stop themselves? Perhaps a truly prepared scientist can find out, if they’re willing to put themselves at risk of assault for the sake of a blood sample.
I want everyone to know this, though: if you are ever sexually assaulted by an animal, do not be afraid to share your story. You are not alone. While it may be hard to verbalize your trauma, you have to know that it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t ask to be attacked. You should also know that by telling of your assault, you are helping others who are not brave enough to do the same. Your account may even help catch a repeat offender. No one should have to feel ashamed by what a wild animal has done to them. No one.
And for those of you who think sexual assault by a turtle or a kakapo is funny: shame on you. Those are real people who have undergone real trauma. Have some compassion! Someday, if karma exists, you may find yourself on the wrong end of an animal’s long stick – and I bet you won’t find it quite so amusing then.