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.
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.