Blowhole access denied

by • November 24, 2013 • Dolphin News, Dolphin ScienceComments Off10553

Ricky Gervais - Dolphin Blowhole SexRicky Gervais is standing on stage at Carnegie Hall underneath a three meter tall drawing of a dolphin inserting his penis into the blowhole of another dolphin. “I’ve never seen that on any wildlife documentary,” says Ricky, “why have I never seen that?”

This is part of his live comedy show focused on the wonders and absurdities of the natural world, and the audience howls with laughter at his seemingly rhetorical question. But there is an answer, and it’s a fairly straightforward one: Ricky has not seen this particular behavior because dolphins don’t do that. The idea of “dolphin blowhole sex” is a modern myth, albeit a strangely popular one with an even stranger story behind it.

In 2008, a Norwegian artist named Rune Olsen unveiled a piece of art titled “Male on Male Dolphin Blowhole Sex.” The sculpture began its life at the Oslo University Museum of Natural History, where it was a part of the “Against Nature” exhibition. It eventually made its way to the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue in New York, where curious art enthusiasts and budding naturalists could closely examine graphite and acrylic dolphin genitalia in action. The life-sized sculpture depicted two male Amazon river dolphins, each brandishing an erection and a smug expression. One swims just above the other, his penis inserted dramatically into the blowhole atop the other’s head.

 “Male on Male Dolphin Blowhole Sex" by Rune OlsenSuch a striking piece did not go unnoticed by the media, and it was around this time that the idea of dolphin blowhole sex entered the mainstream. In 2009, Isabella Rosselini’s Green Porno web-video series tackled the idea, with one episode featuring two dolphin cutouts engaged in penile-blowhole penetration à la Olsen’s sculpture while Isabella croons in her sultry accent, “Oh Oh, blowhole sex! Anything goes!” Ricky Gervais riffed on the topic in his performance at Carnegie Hall that same year. A 2010 article by Jon Mooallem titled “Can Animals Be Gay?” appeared in the New York Times, and mentioned blowhole penetration. This lead to an appearance by Mooallem on The Colbert Report a few months later, with Stephen Colbert expressing shock at the idea of dolphins penetrating each other in the blowhole as a means of sexual gratification. Eventually Liz Lemon would drop a blowhole sex reference in an episode of 30 Rock during an argument with Jack Donaghy, which, as far as I was concerned, marked the moment when blowhole sex had truly arrived.

But for me, someone with a professional interest in dolphin behavior, there was something fishy about all this. Amazon river dolphins, like all dolphins, breathe exclusively through the blowhole atop their heads; dolphins cannot breathe through their mouths like most other mammals. Blowhole sex, then, involves an animal allowing something to be jammed into its sole airway, which would likely lead to the very real risk of water rushing in and the animal drowning. So strong is the instinct not to open their blowhole under water that dolphins, when trapped in fishing nets and about to die, will not attempt to take that final panicked breath that would fill their lungs with water like a drowning human would. Instead, they keep their blowholes firmly shut, and die of asphyxiation. Given this fact, how plausible would it be that a dolphin might casually open its blowhole to allow a foreign object, like a penis, to be placed there?

Long before Olsen created his masterpiece that lead to the popularization of the idea, a handful of journalists had discovered blowhole sex. A National Geographic documentary from 2005 titled “Wild Sex” referenced it, as did a 2006 article in The Economist. The original source for these articles was a popular science book titled Biological Exuberance, written by the biologist Bruce Bagemihl. This exhaustively researched book documents the homosexual behavior of over 300 species, including many dolphin species. In a section on Amazon river dolphins (also called “botos”), a drawing by the book’s artist John Megahan depicts “blowhole penetration.” Megahan’s illustration bears a striking resemblance to Olsen’s sculpture, and is the same image that Ricky Gervais projected onscreen during his comedy act. It also resembles a crude line drawing from one of the peer-reviewed articles cited by Bagemihl as support for the idea of blowhole sex; an article from 1980 describing the behavior of a pair of botos housed at Zoo Duisburg in Germany. Importantly, this article, as well as a second article from 1985, suggested that one of the male dolphins “briefly tried to insert its erect penis into the blowhole of one of the juvenile … dolphins swimming underneath it.”

The key word in this sentence is tried. This suggests that the second dolphin kept his blowhole closed. Without an open blowhole, you most certainly don’t have penetration, which means the idea of blowhole sex as was being depicted in popular culture was likely nothing more than a misinterpretation of this one obscure observation of a dolphin penis wandering in the vicinity of a blowhole.

But Bagemihl cited a third article. It too discussed the behavior of the dolphins from Zoo Duisburg. This 1994 article, however, suggested that penetration was not just attempted, but attained:

The two male Amazon river dolphins demonstrated homosexual behavior throughout the entire year. Both animals were commonly seen to extend their penis. They often used them as probes to touch every part of each others body, even to extend the penis into each others blowhole.

This was passage-zero: the origin of the dolphin blowhole sex meme. It is, to my knowledge, the only observation of this behavior ever recorded in the scientific literature. I will admit that when I first read this passage, I was incredulous. In my mind, there was simply no way a dolphin would allow this to happen. I consulted a dolphin cranial anatomist in search of support for my idea that a blowhole opened under water would be a death sentence for a dolphin, and thus a behavioral impossibility. But in this, the science was against me.

Between the blowhole and the trachea (which is the direct line to a dolphin’s lungs) is a complicated arrangement of muscles, ligaments, sacs, fatty deposits and other soft tissue stuff that a dolphin uses to produce vocalizations and otherwise regulate airflow. The three places where a dolphin can seal its airwayThere are at least three places along the pathway between the blowhole and the trachea where a dolphin can create a seal to prevent water from entering the lungs. The blowhole is the first line of defense, but another seal occurs near the phonic lips, and another at the nasal plug. So as long as a seal is created at one of these places, the blowhole could be open, and water (and a foreign object) could enter the nasal passage without the dolphin drowning.

So was dolphin blowholes sex real? If so, why is it only referenced in this one article? And why did 100% of the dolphin experts I consulted agree that they’d never once witnessed a dolphin penis enter a dolphin blowhole?

Could it be that the observers who penned passage-zero did not actually see what they thought they saw? The only way to know for sure was to speak with someone who had actually been at Zoo Duisburg observing these botos in the act. The 1994 article had multiple authors, some of who had died, and others who were unable – or unwilling – to discuss the topic with me. Eventually I received an email from one of the co-authors. He confirmed what I had expected all along:

With regard to the blowhole they never inserted the penis entirely. They merely played at the opening of the blowhole, in entering as much of the penis, as the closed blowhole allowed. According to our observations the blowhole was never open when the dolphins played with their penis.

That’s that then. The blowhole remained closed. The penis never entered.

The sole source of this meme was the word “into” from the phrase in the original article “extend the penis into each others blowhole.” In the end, the entire myth is built upon a single, inaccurate preposition. It should have read “extend the penis toward each others blowhole.” Every article and book that followed, every sculpture, every cardboard cutout, every PowerPoint presentation and every television reference – they all ultimately stem from an awkward word choice.

With the debunking of blowhole sex, the world has lost a comedy goldmine. But we’ve gained something of greater value in return: a clearer understanding of dolphin behavior.

***

(Here’s the paragraph from the 1994 article containing passage-zero)

 

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