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Animals Give Head, Too

Scientists aren’t sure why, exactly, but bats, bonobos and bears (and more) all do the deed

The first line of a PLOSOne paper describing fruit-bat fellatio calls oral sex a common part of foreplay among humans that is “seldom observed in animals.” And yet, Bruce Bagemihl, PhD, who compiled the painstakingly detailed encyclopedia of gay animal sex Biological Exuberance, notes the abundance of animals that have been observed having oral sex. His list includes cheetahs, lions, walruses, caribou, rhesus macaques, gibbons, dwarf cavies (looks like a guinea pig), Rufous rat-kangaroos (more inclined to anal licking), manatees, Kob antelopes, tinhorn sheep, gorillas, and you get the picture.

Text and images: Perrin Ireland

It can be hard for scientists to determine why animals have oral. Biologists view behavioral adaptations through the lens of their likelihood to guarantee an animal evolutionary success. This means passing along the precious package of one’s genetic material to the next generation—a.k.a. being a baby daddy or baby mama—before being snuffed out by the ever-quickening specter of death. In the wild, if an animal’s going to do something, scientists want to know how much energy the activity takes, and how likely it is to guarantee that animal passes on its genes. Otherwise, from an evolutionary perspective, why do it?

It can also be tricky for us humans to know when something is pleasurable for an animal, which makes describing these behaviors in scientific journals tougher. Many scientists balk at anthropomorphizing animals. But it’s a great scientific question to want to know if, and what, animals feel. Jane Goodall has long said that chimps have emotions. Primatologists, however, really know how to take the fun out of female Japanese macaque orgasms: “The female turns her head to look back at her partner, reaches back with one hand, and grasps the male.” Snooze.

But still—evidence for pleasurable animal sex is piling up. If something feels good, we’re more likely to do it (e.g., pooping and eating) so why not make sex, vital to life, pleasurable? This might even make sense to Darwin himself!

In some cases of animal oral sex, scientists have a hunch about the motivations. For primates, oral sex is usually a bonding activity, or a means of disseminating tension. Scientists think lady fruit bats lick male bat penis shafts during sex because it prolongs sex. A newly discovered species of spider in Madagascar, Darwin’s bark spider, might nibble female genitalia during sex to either solidify or remove a sperm plug with its saliva. And dolphins? They’re just the best freaks of nature ever and obviously have oral sex for delight beyond our wildest dreams, using acoustic echolocation massaging.

Mic drop by dolphins.

Perrin Ireland is a visual science reporter living in New York. You can find more of her work on experrinment.com.

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