In marine mammals’ battle of the sexes, vaginal folds can make the difference

Patricia Brennan has made a splash with her studies of genitalia and fit

harbor porpoise

FERTILE FOLDS In harbor porpoises (one shown), females have vaginal folds (3-D endocast shown below) that may help them exert control over fertilization.

Solvin Zankl/Alamy Stock Photo

The battle of the sexes, at least among certain ocean mammals, may come down to well-placed skin folds, suggests research by Patricia Brennan, an evolutionary biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and colleagues.

In some species, enhanced male-female genital fit has evolved over time in ways that make mating easier. This is an example of what scientists call congruent evolution. In other species, genital anatomy reflects a battle, as shape and form change over time to give one sex an edge in control of fertilization. Fittingly, this is called antagonistic evolution.

Brennan’s recent collaboration, examining genitalia of porpoises, dolphins and seals, required extra creativity. In previous studies, her team used saline to inflate preserved penises from birds, snakes, sharks and bats. But the tough, fibroelastic penises of the cetaceans would not inflate with saline alone. So her collaborator, Diane Kelly, a penis biomechanics expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested pressurizing the saline with a beer keg.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘This could be the best or worst idea we’ve ever had,’ ” Brennan laughs. But it worked. The scientists then created vaginal endocasts with dental silicone and made 3-D mathematical models to examine male-female fit. The team, led by marine mammalogist Dara Orbach of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, described the work in the Oct. 11 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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A 3-D endocast of a porpoise’s vagina let researchers see how male and female sex organs fit together.D. Orbach
The results show both antagonistic and congruent coevolution. In the model vaginas of short-beaked common dolphins ( Delphinus delphis ) and harbor seals ( Phoca vitulina ), penises encountered no physical barriers to penetration.

But in harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and bottlenosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), the scientists found vaginal folds that may help females physically exert choice over sperm. By subtly changing body position during sex, females may use those folds to decrease penetration depth, reducing the likelihood of fertilization by unwanted males, Brennan says.

Patricia Brennan studies animals’ male-female genital fit to understand the battle over fertilization. She recently moved from studies of ducks (shown), bats and sharks to ocean mammals. Ian Gereg
Brennan’s work has, understandably, made a splash over the years, attracting media coverage and, in 2013, criticism. Conservative news websites and internet trolls attacked her research, calling it “wasteful government spending.” Surprised by the reaction, Brennan responded publicly with an essay in Slate , arguing that basic science moves society forward and is a valid and valuable use of public funds. The experience convinced her that scientists must defend basic science.

Our ability to innovate is undermined without curiosity-driven science, she says. Brennan has developed an outreach program on basic science and plans to keep expanding knowledge of vertebrate genitalia. “In every species we have looked,” she says, “we have found something weird that nobody else knew.” Reason enough to keep discovering.

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