Tetrapod Zoology

I was recently asked a reasonable and intelligent question on elephants. One thing led to another, and after a bit of research I discovered the fascinating world of elephant masturbation. If you want to collect sperm from a (captive) elephant, how do you do it? Luckily youtube provides the answer. It seems that manual stimulation of the penis (1) just doesn’t do it for elephants, and (2) is physically dangerous (read on), so you have to stick your arm into the animal’s rectum and vigorously stimulate its prostate gland. How vigorously? Watch the video. The eventual result – and I’m not entirely sure how long this takes – is ejaculation…



Of course male elephants don’t (ordinarily, so far as we know) have any trouble ejaculating when interacting sexually with other elephants, and may ejaculate prematurely during their efforts to achieve successful penetration (Bagemihl 1999). It can take (presumably inexperienced) males a bit of rooting around with the flexible penis before finding the vulva. As is well known, the elephant vulva is not located just beneath the tail as is the case in most mammals, but down on the ventral surface and well between the legs, meaning that the vagina is very long (70-90 cm). This unusual position means that pregnancies are sometimes unnoticed and even that females have on occasion been mistakenly identified as male: Shoshani (1991) wrote of a case where a female was thought to be a male throughout her 25 years of life and was only found to be female on her death. Why elephants are built like this has been a long standing question.

i-f1028e35c1e23fca1eab23cb745757fa-loxodonta penis anatomy.jpg

Image from Hildebrandt et al. (2000). Non-obvious abbreviations: amp = ampullae, bu = bulbourethral gland, pro (which looks like prc due to poor cropping in the original figure) = prostate gland, pb = pelvic bone, sv = seminal vesicle.


In order for mating to be successful then, the penis has to be both long and flexible. Naturally S-curved (with the tip pointing upwards), it can be up to 1 m long (some sources say up to 1.5 m) and have a girth of 16 cm. It has a Y-shaped external urethal opening and is controlled by a large levator penis muscle. The clitoris is also large, at a whopping 40 cm, and is manipulated by a levator clitoris muscle. Perhaps the most interesting bit of information (provided in the video by elephant reproduction expert Robert Hermes) is that, not only does manual stimulation fail to work on elephants, it’s also physically dangerous. Apparently there are parts of the elephant penis that, when touched, cause the organ to flick around with enough force to knock over an unwary veterinarian or even inflict a black eye. Don’t believe me? Watch the second video. Or… check the technical literature (Schmitt & Hildebrandt 1998, Portas et al. 2007).

And, ha ha ha, while this is all very amusing, the reason that sperm needs to be collected from elephants is of course for use in insemination and in building breeding stocks. Bull elephants are relatively few in captivity, and those that exist seem to suffer from an unusually high number of fertility problems. This has initiated recent ultrasonographic work that seeks to find and identify good sperm donors (Hildebrandt et al. 2000). So… now you know. By the way, penises and vaginas are all very interesting, but does anyone actually know how an elephant’s trunk works?

If you’re particularly interested in elephants be sure to read the recent piece on Jeheskel Shoshani.

Refs – -

Bagemihl, B. 1999. Biological Exuberance. Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Hildebrandt, T. B., Hermes, R., Pratt, N. C., Fritsch, G., Blottner, S., Schmitt, D. L., Ratanakorn, P., Brown, J. L., Rietschel, W. & Göritz, F. 2000. Ultrasonography of the urogenital tract in elephants (Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus): an important tool for assessing male reproductive function. Zoo Biology 19, 333-345.

Portas, T. J., Bryant, B. R., Göritz, F., Hermes, R., Keeley, T., Evans, G., Maxwell, W, M. C. & Hildebrant, T. B. 2007. Semen collection in an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) under combined physical and chemical restraint. Australian Veterinary Journal 85, 425-427.

Schmitt, D. L. & Hildebrandt, T. B. 1998. Manual collection and characterization of semen from Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Animal Reproduction Science 53, 309-314.

Shoshani, J. 2000. Anatomy and physiology. In Shoshani, J. (ed) Elephants. Checkmark Books (New York), pp. 66-81.

Comments

  1. #1 Carpworld
    June 25, 2008

    Oh.My.God. That was unexpected.

    I’d like to point out that my reasonable and intelligent question was IN NO WAY related to elephant masturbation techniques.

  2. #2 Bad Bunny Boingo
    June 25, 2008

    Yeah yeah SURE it wasn’t :)

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    June 25, 2008

    How much time do you spend each day reading primary literature? 25 hours?

    levator clitoris

    Clitoridis. Latin declension is occasionally unpredictable.

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    June 25, 2008

    How much time do you spend each day reading primary literature? 25 hours?

    26.

    Clitoridis. Latin declension is occasionally unpredictable.

    Yes, the correct name is erectores clitoridis, but the reference I was looking at at the time (Shoshani 2000) used the vernacular ‘levator clitoris’. I can live with this.

  5. #5 Tengu
    June 25, 2008

    Oh, I employ a female elephant to do that…

  6. #6 Nentuaby
    June 25, 2008

    … I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever understand what drives people to go into Zoologic Medicine.

  7. #7 Zach Miller
    June 25, 2008

    WHY, Darren? WHY?

    Also, I think the phrase should be changed to “hung like a pachyderm.”

  8. #8 Michele
    June 25, 2008

    When I was in Egypt, someone remarked he thought tending to camels was the lowest job possible; lower than cleaning toilets. I would have to say this job is worse than tending to camels.

  9. #9 Tengu
    June 25, 2008

    FOAF once had a job at the Ministry of Agricultures artificial insemination place.

    His job, would you believe? was Milking the Bull.

    And he had to wear a rubber suit for it too. (But no prostrate prodding, mercifully, just…)

  10. #10 Dr. Tachyon
    June 25, 2008

    Thanks a lot, I just recommended your site to a colleague the other day. I can only imagine what they will think :)

  11. The things I learn on this site LOL

    Yours truly is one of the most brilliant, informative, and DIVERSE blogs out there.

    This was definately not what I expected to learn about this morning, and I feel I should now have a sock on my door or something while surfing hehehehe

  12. #12 cfrost
    June 26, 2008

    How did they figure this technique out and who was the brave soul who first ventured to try it? If there is ever a medal awarded to heroes of conservation biology . . .

  13. #13 Adam Yates
    June 26, 2008

    >Why elephants are built like this has been a long standing question.

    Would it be so that their babies don’t have a fatally long drop on birth? I’ve seen footage of elephant birth (quite rare apparently) and the mother didn’t appear to crouch, so that even from its lower starting point the baby hits the ground with quite a thud.

    cheers

    Adam

  14. #14 Dave Hone
    June 26, 2008

    Shouldn’t there at least be some Barry White on the video as a backing track?

  15. #15 David Hone
    June 26, 2008

    Adam, “Hi”! And secondly, I’d be surprised if that was it – female giraffe happily drop their spawn from about 6-7 ft (2 m) to the ground and those babies are far more spindly with breaky bits like legs and necks compared to a relatively robust elephant calf. It might well have an effect, but I’d be very surprised if that was the whole reason.

  16. #16 Darren Naish
    June 26, 2008

    .. I was thinking giraffes too. Furthermore, if (a speculative ‘if’, but one that I can kid myself into accepting) the genital morphology of modern elephants arose at the base of Elephantimorpha (the mammutidan + elephantidan clade), the most basal forms we know of were, while fundamentally elephanty in shape and proportions, not too big. The holotype adult (c. 26 yr old) Eritreum, for example, had a shoulder height of 1.2-1.3 m (Shoshani et al. 2006), which is much less than that of, say, most cattle. More basal proboscideans are of course even smaller, but then they are not elephantine in proportions and it seems easier to assume that they had a different urogenital system.

    I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to think that mammutids and so on were fundamentally different from extant elephants in this regard… though I am speculating. The way to have a go at testing this is to look long and hard at proboscidean pelves. I’ve done this and don’t see much that gives the game away as goes the morphology of the urogenital system but, hey, I’m no expert (incidentally, there is a pretty good literature on fossil elephant pelves, some of it devoted to sexual dimorphism). We do know that Mammut exhibited the same sort of sexual dimorphism in the pelvis as do living elephants (Green 2006), perhaps implying the same sort of soft-tissue morphology.

    Ref – -

    Green, J. L. 2006. Chronoclinal variation and sexual dimorphism in Mammut americanum (American mastodon) from the Pleistocene of Florida. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 46, 29-59.

    Shoshani, J., Walter, R. C., Abraha, M., Berhe, S., Tassy, P., Sanders, W. J., Marchant, G. H., Libsekal, Y., Ghirmai, T. & Zinner, D. 2006. A proboscidean from the late Oligocene of Eritrea, a “missing link” between early Elephantiformes and Elephantimorpha, and biogeographic implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 17296-17301.

  17. #17 Darby
    June 26, 2008

    Do elephants have any particular structures or set-ups to keep their testes cool? They are way in there…

  18. #18 Pierce R. Butler
    June 26, 2008

    It’s unclear from the diagram: does the elephantine prostate surround (and in later life expand to constrict) the urethra as in homo sap?

    Just how widespread (so to speak) is that particular feature of unintelligent design, anyhow?

  19. #19 Andreas Johansson
    June 26, 2008

    It’s a pity no mastodonts appear to’ve had the good taste to freeze themselves so we could look up their naughty bits.

  20. #20 Darren Naish
    June 26, 2008

    Darby: how do elephants keep their testes cool? Good question – I don’t know the answer, but you’ll be very interested to hear that some workers have argued that the testicular position present in the group is a result of the aquatic ancestry most recently supported by Gaeth et al. (1999) and Liu et al. (2008)… go here.

    Pierce: the elephant prostate (in both Elephas and Loxodonta) differs from that of humans in being a paired structure situated entirely dorsal to the urethra, rather than being a ring-like structure that surrounds the urethra (and each half of the organ is tri-lobed). Prostate infections in elephants are recorded but (so far as I can tell from a quick check of the literature) prostate problems do not cause constriction of the urethra. For unknown reasons, the prostate of Loxodonta is about twice as big as that of Elephas and has irregularly shaped internal cavities of unknown function. Source: the Hildebrandt et al. paper cited above.

    Refs – -

    Gaeth, A. P., Short, R. V. & Renfree, M. B. 1999. The developing renal, reproductive, and respiratory systems of the African elephant suggest an aquatic ancestry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96, 5555-5558.

    Liu, A. G., Seiffert, E. R. & Simons, E. L. 2008. Stable isotope evidence for an amphibious phase in early proboscidean evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, 5786-5791.

  21. #21 Nathan Myers
    June 27, 2008

    The headline would be funnier if “you” were italicized, instead of “do”.

    The secret to cost-effective elephant semen harvesting is to find someone who really likes doing it — but only let them watch, and charge them for it.

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    June 27, 2008

    how do elephants keep their testes cool? Good question – I don’t know the answer, but you’ll be very interested to hear that some workers have argued that the testicular position present in the group is a result of the aquatic ancestry

    Isn’t it simply the ancestral condition? I remember looking at a paper (perhaps in Evolutionary Theory, in any case very long ago) that said elephants and tenrecs have higher rates of evolution because they, well, don’t keep their testes all that cool.

  23. #23 Darren Naish
    June 27, 2008

    Re: internal testes..

    Isn’t it simply the ancestral condition?

    Nope, based on what’s present in marsupials and other taxa, a scrotum is basal for therians at least. Werdelin & Nilsonne (1999) examined this issue and argued for multiple independent losses of the scrotum in eutherians. However, the phylogeny they mapped their characters on to would now be considered very out of date. Fully internal testicles (the so-called testicondy condition) seem to charaterise all afrotherians and I’ve seen some discussion of the possibility that testicondy is a synapomorphy of the group. The paper proposing rapid evolution resulting from hot testicles is by the same authors (Werdelin et al. 1999).

    Ref – -

    Werdelin, L. & Nilsonne, A. 1999. The evolution of the scrotum and testicular descent in mammals: a phylogenetic view. Journal of Theoretical Biology 196, 61-72.

    - ., Nilsonne, A. & Fortelius, M. 1999. Testicondy and ecological opportunism predict the rapid evolution of elephants. Evolutionary Theory 12, 39-45.

  24. #24 Darren Naish
    June 27, 2008

    Oh hold on – you might have meant the ancestral condition inherited from other afrotherians, not from other non-afrotherian placentals. Sorry, I misunderstood, and had forgotten the earlier statement about internal testes resulting from an aquatic phase unique to proboscideans or tethytheres.

  25. #25 David Marjanovi?
    June 27, 2008

    No, I did mean the ancestral condition for therians. Aren’t marsupial scrota cranial of the penis? Do monotremes have one? And the name Scrotifera suggests that (eu)lipotyphlans have testicondy, too…

    Concering Werdelin et al., it’s nice to see how reliable my memory is :-)

  26. #26 Jaime A. Headden
    June 29, 2008

    I may be entirely wrong about this, but testicont animals should have extenstive vascularization of the inguinal cavity and therefore the vascular structures associated with the urogenital system. It’s likely simply that the system found in female animals is developed in male animals. If I recall correctly, testicont males actually “attempt” to exteriorize their genitals during development, but then retract them. Prior to this, the vascular system common to females and prenatal males (first trimester in humans as a frame of reference) does not diverge, and genes should kick in. I am not sure. This may simply argue that testicont males are femininized.

  27. #27 Nathan Myers
    June 29, 2008

    Jaime: The expression “kick in” in the context of testicles makes me cringe involuntarily.

  28. #28 luca
    June 30, 2008

    Great post, Darren… Are you planning to take over Olivia’s place as Dr Tatiana?

  29. #29 David Marjanovi?
    July 5, 2008

    Are you planning to take over Olivia’s place as Dr Tatiana?

    Link doesn’t work.

  30. #30 V W Henry
    October 25, 2009

    The accessory gland stimulation ejaculatory process doesn’t seem that different from the electro-ejaculation response when collecting semen from a bull (bovine, bos taurus). However, I do wonder how higher body termperatures don’t reduce sperm development in elephants as compared to other mammals with robust scrotal thermoregulatory functions?

  31. #31 hunterhunt
    November 11, 2009

    Ive had that same question asked me before know i know what to tell the them

  32. #32 Maxtus
    January 30, 2010

    Great to see this page. My profession is livestock reproduction (mostly horses) but would like to be able to work with some of the large exotics like Elephants and Giraffes, so am always interested to find information on reproduction in said species.

    Someone on here asked why anyone would get into the field of elephant reproduction (or something like that). I must point out that just because you are not interested int it, does not mean no one else is. Elephants are a species with dwindling #’s (by the hands of humans I must point out)and thus someone needs to be in the field to keep them from disappearing. Also, many of us find reproduction, growth cycles, aging, etc fascination.

    As to the question about temperature regulation of testicles that are contained within the body of the elephant, I have to wonder if the body temp of the elephant being just a tad bit lower than most species with external testicles has anything to do with it. I read on the net the average body temperature of an Elephant (did not say if it was Asian or African) is 35.9 C = 96.6 F. Granted this is not much lower, however is none the less lower.

    Any thoughts on that idea?

  33. #33 David Marjanović
    January 30, 2010

    Elephants do indeed have a higher mutation rate because of their warmer testicles.

  34. #34 Knockgoats
    January 31, 2010

    Are elephants ever observed to self-stimulate using their trunks? Could they, anatomically speaking, reach that far under themselves? I ask, you understand, purely in the spirit of scientific curiosity ;-)

  35. #35 Andrew
    February 1, 2010

    On equestion has been bugging me of late;
    What interaction do sharks have with salt water crocs? Do the predate one another?
    Help!

  36. #36 Mey
    July 3, 2011

    Dear Sir/Madam.
    Recently, I need some samples white-elephant’s mani (cement) and sperms (dried).
    Would you mind to send me some of that stuffs?
    I will pay for the delivery fee.
    I am waiting for your response.
    Thank you in advance.
    Mey Mey.
    Jakarta, Indonesia.

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