Turtles are among the most imperiled animals on the planet, yet we still have a lot to learn about these secretive swamp dwellers. Even for experts, telling apart the males and females can be a challenge in certain species. Fortunately, your local sex toy shop could help.
Differentiating between male and female turtles is important. Years ago, I was in upstate New York studying freshwater turtles when I noticed there were very few females in wetlands surrounded by roads. There was only one reasonable explanation: Female turtles have to travel on land to find nesting spots and were getting hammered by cars.
If I wasn't able to tell the difference between male and female turtles, then I wouldn't have been able to sound the alarm that roads were a problem. But I had it easy. Painted turtles, the species that I studied, exhibit sexual dimorphism: Basically, adult males look different than adult females because they have a concave plastron (lower shell) and longer tail. However, not all species are easy to tell apart, and this makes things tricky—especially when their reproductive organs tend to stay inside their shells—which leaves researchers unable to understand their populations.
Authors report that it may be "useful to move the vibrator around in small, slow, steady circles."
When Donald McKnight was studying Oklahoma Chicken Turtles a few years ago, he used previously published techniques to characterize their populations. After his results indicated extremely biased sex ratios—the males greatly outnumbered the females McKnight, a Ph.D. candidate at James Cook University in Australia, started to get suspicious and wondered whether he might be using inaccurate techniques.
Inspired by a paper he read about ejaculating turtles with a vibrator (to obtain sperm for study), he decided to determine whether sex toys reliably arouse male turtles; if so, he could show that masturbating turtles was a method researchers could use to distinguish between males and females. Getting turtles off with a vibrator isn't just an odd pastime. It also represents a much less intrusive method than some other means of determining a turtle's sex, like dissection.
The results of McKnight's study, published in the journal Acta Herpetologica, suggest that turtles are not so different from us. What got one turtle off did not necessarily work for others, so a little trial and error may be required to refine techniques before they are put into wide use.
Fortunately though, inexperienced researchers may find the techniques used to arouse turtles are not so foreign. When I reached out to McKnight for tips he told me, "If you're in a good spot, [the turtle] relaxes."
"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," he added.
Can't decide which tricks to try first? More detailed instructions can be found in the original paper, where the authors report that it may be "useful to move the vibrator around in small, slow, steady circles."
Regardless of specific technique, future turtle researchers—or I guess anyone for that matter—may benefit from some parting advice from McKnight: "It did appear though that we got a better response when the vibrator had fresh batteries and was on its fastest setting." Good tip.
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