Do Dolphins Lie About Orgasms Too? Some of Them May Have Sex for Fun, Study Implies

Bottlenose dolphins have big clitorises, scientists discover, and they may be able to get pleasure from sex

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Credit: Roslan RAHMAN / AFP

Scientists have gone where no person ever looked before, we hope, and belatedly discovered that the female bottlenose dolphin has a clitoris. A large one, reports Dr. Dara Orbach of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, who conducted the research along with Dr. Patricia Brennan.

Having a clitoris does not mean the lady dolphin necessarily wants to do it with every male in the mood. But a clitoris, she has. Also, the dolphin clitoris has enough similarities with the human clitoris to suggest she may be able to get pleasure from sex. Like women, that doesn’t mean she does — just that the potential is there.

“Our anatomical observations suggest the clitoris is functional in bottlenose dolphins, but further research, including physiological and behavioral analyses, are necessary to test if sexual experiences can be pleasurable for female dolphins,” Orbach spells out.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Anatomists.

Structurally, the dolphin clitoris has bundles of nerves under the hood, like the human version. It may also expand when stimulated, though the researchers didn’t test that. They studied dead dolphins, and if those were expanding it wasn’t from caresses.

But there’s one key difference that, if anything, suggests potential enjoyment. In the woman the clitoris is external to the vagina, while in the dolphin it is internal, at the entrance of the vaginal opening. Which means, Orbach explains, it is in direct contact with the penis and would notice copulation.

Also, dolphins do it a lot. “Dolphins copulate year-round, including during periods when they cannot conceive,” write the researchers, so somebody is enjoying it — though the jury is out on whom.

Credit: AP

And does the lady dolphin reach orgasm? That is not known. Let’s face it, men can’t even tell if women reach orgasm, let alone if marine mammals can.

Like in humans, whether or not the odd fib is resorted to in lieu of lube to smooth things, it seems sex plays a role in social bonding in the dolphin.

Certainly, it does so in other social species, say the researchers, citing the bonobo. They famously use almost all their leisure time to have sex (though they are also capable of irritability).

“In other mammalian species with year-round copulation, such as humans and bonobos, sex is known to be pleasurable for females, often through clitoral stimulation that leads to orgasm,” said Orbach.

Supporting the possibility of cetacean sexual rapture is evidence of even less direct relevance, but it’s intriguing anyway: Fruit flies have amazing orgasms, a study at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University found exactly a year ago.  There it was proven on males, who would opt for sex rather than getting drunk, and was not checked on females. But the potential for fun is there.

For all the messing around with dolphins for decades and rapturous coos at their intelligence (which we still don’t actually know much about), nobody noticed the clitoris until now, despite its impressive size. Why? Because we don’t eat dolphins as a rule, and nobody looked, until now. The researchers say they dissected 11 dolphins that had died naturally and did close tissue examination.

This narrow research on bottleneck dolphins does not shed light on the sex habits and mores of other species of dolphin, let alone whales or other relatives of this cetacean set. Their females may have clitorises or orgasms, too, and we may never know.

Computer reconstruction of the clitoris of the bottlenose dolphin, which is very much like the human one.Credit: Dara Orbach, Mount Holyoke Colle

The naked truth is we barely know what other humans are feeling and thinking, and when it comes to other species our best guesses could be wildly wrong. Take cats. How the devil they reproduce at all, let alone with such stunning success, is mysterious if one were to judge feline reproduction habits by human criteria. From the “spikes” on the feline penis to the shrieks during copulation, which don’t sound like “oh yes, oh yes” in meow, one has to wonder: Are they having fun?

Yeah, they probably are. Fact is, there has to be a reason animals have sex. A study done almost four decades ago, in 1980, described pretty convincing evidence of orgasm in the stump-tailed macaque — but not all the time, mark you.

Wonderfully — or dismayingly, depending who you show the paper to — a 1998 study in Japanese macaques found that the more relatively dominant the male, the more likely the lady was to reach satisfaction: “The highest frequency of female orgasms was found among pairs formed by high-ranking males and low-ranking females and the lowest frequency among pairs formed by low-ranking males and high-ranking females,” wrote the scientists in the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior.

Suddenly bellicose

The female bottlenose dolphin isn't the only animal with an impressive clitoris, of course. The human doesn't do badly for herself but perhaps one of the winners is the hyena. The erectile clitoris is as big as the penis and to the casual observer, is often mistaken for one. A very close look between its (hind) legs with a magnifying glass will spot crucial differences however. Your hyena may not let you do that.

In hyenas, which are closer to cats than dogs (really), the female is dominant: in fact, it is thought that is why she evolved that extraordinary clitoral equipment. "…the female phallus may have originated as an unselected side effect of selection for androgen-mediated bellicosity," suggested researchers in 1997, writing in Science Direct

Is this a girl hyena or a boy? Don't leap to conclusions.Credit: Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock

Also, the spotted hyena is the only mammal known that mates and gives birth through that penis-like clitoris. Whatever our problems as people, at least we don't have to do that. Also, there is no clear research on whether the hyena enjoys sex as much as people, and bottlenose dolphins, potentially do.  

So, back to our dolphins. There are two main arguments against the female bottleneck dolphin orgasm. One is that the lady dolphin did not seem to have a vestibular bulb, which is another erectile region around the human vaginal opening that contributes to orgasm.

The other is that bottlenose sex habits can be troubling. They aren’t pairing off and swimming into the sunset. It happens that a group of males gang up on females, and it looks a lot like force. If sex is leading to dolphin bonding, it may not be the type we like to think it is.

“Very little is known about female reproductive morphology in most wild vertebrate species,” Orbach said. “This research provides a comparative framework to explore other functions of sex that may not be unique to humans. We are on the precipice of a deeper understanding of the relationship between form and function of genitalia.”

Computer reconstruction of the clitoris of the bottlenose dolphin showing the erectile tissue of the clitoris (yellow) embedded in the surrounding muscle and connective tissue (green).Credit: Dara Orbach, Mount Holyoke Colle
CT scan of the clitoris of the bottlenose dolphin. The erectile tissue (at center) is surrounded by dense muscle and connective tissueCredit: Dara Orbach, Mount Holyoke Colle