Humans And Dolphins

Flickr_Esparta Palma

If you think about it, you can probably come up with multiple ways that female dolphins are similar to female humans. For one, there is the ability to give birth to and raise their young. There’s also every indication that dolphins bond closely with offspring and may mourn dead calves (as a 2018 study showed). But recent research has shed light on something else that females in both species have in common: the presence of a clitoris and the capacity for sexual pleasure when mating.

Better Than Humans? The Dolphin Clitoris

A recently-released study reveals the surprising presence of a large clitoris in female bottlenosed dolphins. Researchers have verified that the well-developed body part retains parallels to a human clitoris starting with the presence of erectile tissue. The skin underneath the dolphin’s clitoral hood is filled with sensitive nerve bundles which are capable of producing pleasure and of becoming engorged with blood. The overall shape is also similar to a human clitoris.

However, biologists also noted that the bottlenosed dolphin clitoris was different, and possibly improved, over a human clitoris. Its tip is placed lower and closer to the vaginal opening than a human’s clitoris is. This location makes it impossible for bottlenosed dolphins to copulate in any position without clitoral stimulation. Human women may look at this placement with nothing but envy. How did dolphin females get so lucky? Do they make the most of their good biological fortune? The answer is. . . possibly they do.

Do Bottlenosed Dolphins Enjoy Sex For Pleasure?

Based on this early research, it seems that the dolphin’s clitoris is uniquely designed to provide sexual pleasure in the marine animal. This theory is supported by the fact that dolphins have been observed to engage in sexual intercourse throughout the calendar year even though females are only capable of conceiving during a limited time every two to three years. Some research has shown that for dolphins, mating is as much a bonding experience as it is a reproductive one.

However, there is still some question about whether a female dolphin can achieve the orgasm that humans have. As they conducted their anatomical research, experts noted that dolphins did not appear to have a vestibular bulb, an area of tissue in humans that surrounds the vagina and contributes to orgasm. It is also true that no one really knows for sure what an orgasm looks like in a female dolphin. Do they make more clicks and noises? Do their bodies move a certain way? Do they stay still? It is hard to document, though similarities in body parts do imply that female dolphins do have the capacity to enjoy the experience just as other non-human species have been shown to do.

About The Study

The research was led by Dara Orbach, Ph.D., a research associate at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She did the work along with her colleague, the College’s Assistant Professor of Biology Patricia Brennan, Ph.D. The two presented the results at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting in Orlando, Florida. They are calling their findings preliminary but hope that their observations can be used as baseline data for future research efforts.

How did Orbach and Brennan conduct their study? To start, they obtained a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to retrieve and study  11 deceased bottlenosed dolphins that had washed up onto beaches. They dissected the carcasses, paying special attention to the sexual anatomy in the animals. They created 3D computerized scans of the tissue and placed some of the tissue in paraffin wax and stained it to further understand what they were looking at. They made careful notes, compiled their observations, and drew conclusions about what they had found.

Breakthrough Sex-Focused Research

The study offered one of the first, in-depth looks at dolphin female anatomy. In an interview about her research, Brennan stated that “sexual pleasure in animals has not received a great deal of attention from researchers. But many vertebrates have clitorises and rats and some primates are known to experience orgasm. Dolphins have been known to be highly sexual creatures, with males seen masturbating and even penetrating each others’ blowholes.” With this knowledge of the male experience, it is understandable that the researchers wanted to know more about the female-side of dolphin life.

In some ways, the lack of sexually-focused research is surprising given humans’ overall interest in sex. It is such a compelling topic that it remains a strong part of movies, music, and online media. At times, creating something about sex greatly increases the chance it will have an audience. However, for many talking about sex can also be embarrassing at least and taboo at best. This might explain the lack of research to date.

The Benefits Of Getting To Know Other Species

Getting to know other species as specifically as possible, including research on the sexual biology of bottlenosed dolphins, has its benefits. As we learn more about other creatures, we can have empathy for them in a way that will help them thrive in their place as part of Earth’s biological web of life. Learning about other creatures also helps us learn about ourselves. We understand our place on earth in a way that may shed some light on how and why humans make the choices we do. We may learn to make better choices or to develop approaches that, ultimately, help our world.