Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Researchers are Using Vibrators to Give Turtles Boners

Hey all, I hope you've had a chance to read my first article for Motherboard: Researchers are Using Vibrators to Give Turtles Boners that featured the research of Donald McKnight, a Ph.D. Candidate at James Cook University. If not, go check it out! The article is pretty short so there was a bunch from my interview with Donald that got cut out; I decided to publish the rest of the exchange here. When you're done reading the Motherboard article come on back here for more!

How did you come up with the idea to use a vibrator to sex turtles?

For my MSc, we were working with a population of western chicken turtles that appeared to have a very skewed sex ratio (far more males than females), and very few people have worked with chicken turtles in that part of their range, so we weren’t convinced that the published methods for sexing chicken turtles worked for our population. Thus, we began looking for alternatives, but because of the conservation status and relatively small size of our turtles, most methods were out of the question, so we began looking for alternatives. That’s when I came across a paper by Lefebvre, Carter, and Mockford, where they used vibrators to get male turtles to ejaculate for sperm studies. It seemed reasonable to us that if you could use a vibrator to make a turtle ejaculate, then you should also be able to use it to make a male turtle show you his penis, which would then allow us to distinguish males and females.

Your paper notes that certain techniques worked better than others and that the appropriate technique might vary by species or individual. How do you recommend future researchers evaluate their technique and figure out how to modify it?

It’s really going to be trial and error. When you have a relaxed turtle and you start to vibrate it, it is usually pretty obvious if you do something that it doesn’t like, because it will pull its tail up tightly against the body and tense up. In contrast, if you’re in a good spot, it relaxes even more and, often, you can see fluid forming around the cloaca. So when trying a species for the first time, researchers really just need to experiment with lots of different positions and techniques, and it should be obvious which ones are working and which ones aren’t.

Given the variety of available vibrators, are there certain features of vibrators that you think would make them more effective at sexing turtles?

I certainly suspect that some will work better than others, but I haven’t had a chance to experiment with anything other than the generic silver bullet vibrator that we used in the study. It did appear though that we got a better response when the vibrator had fresh batteries and was on its fastest setting, so I suspect that high speed ones will work better than slower ones. 

When you decided to publish the study, were you concerned that the paper would be criticized by people that were not biologists? Why or why not?

I was a little bit concerned because people often react irrationally and emotionally anytime that animals are involved. So, I think that it is really important to emphasize that we didn’t do this because of some perverse personal desire. Rather, we did this because we were looking for a non-invasive way to easily sex turtles in the field. The current alternatives include things like taking the turtles to a veterinarian to open them up surgically and look at their gonads, which is obviously far more traumatic for the turtle than simply vibrating it for a few minutes (surgery is potentially fatal). So, this really was driven by a desire to minimize our impact on these animals, and I hope the general public will realize that.

Are you planning any follow-up studies to refine the technique and increase its utility?

At this particular moment, no. We talked about trying to expand our methods and species before publishing, but I’ve moved on to work on my PhD and just don’t have time at the moment. So, we decided to just go ahead and publish what we have and let the rest of the scientific community move forward with it. I’d certainly be open to revisiting it in the future though.

Can you think of any other sex toys that may have applications for biology and conservation research?

I don’t personally have any ideas at the moment, but I think that there is definitely potential there, and biologists are a pretty creative, innovative group. So I don’t think this will be the last sex toy study.

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