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Inside the World of People Who Film Animals Boning — For Science

Fun fact: The Golden Gate Bridge is the best spot in the entire world to see porpoises doing the nasty

For all sorts of academic and educational purposes, scientists are filming animals having sex all the time all over the world. Right now even, some scientist somewhere is doing whatever they can to get to animals in the mood. Sometimes it’s easy, and the animals have about as much shame as a couple boning in an IKEA, but sometimes it takes a bit more finesse to get animals to get it on in front of a camera. Like, when it came to feather lice, the scientist filming them had to use a heating pad to set the mood. For porpoises, people had to spend a hell of a lot of time in the San Francisco Bay to get what they were looking for. As for Panda bears, well, that took a subscription to Panda Pornhub.

As an undergrad, evolutionary biologist Scott Villa made headlines for an experiment that involved filming feather lice mating. The camera he used was nothing special — “I did it with an old, fifth-generation iPhone touch,” he explains. But while the camera itself was just a vintage iPhone with a scope attached to it, getting those lice in the mood while on a laboratory table was a bit more complex. “These lice are adapted for feathers, and they don’t do well off of their host,” Villa explains. “For example, they can’t crawl around in our hair and our skin because they don’t have the claws for it. So trying to figure out how to get lice to ‘act normally’ off of the host was incredibly challenging.”

Eventually, after a great deal of trial and error, Villa thought to borrow a heating pad from a research assistant who had a sore back and turned it to the body temperature of the lice’s host. Then he put a few feathers on the pad, placed the lice down, and after a little while, the lice began to move, and eventually, they got busy.

As for why Villa put so much effort into capturing his reluctantly horny lice on tape, filming them while mating was an unexpected aspect of an experiment that had been going on for four years. “One of the huge questions in evolutionary biology is, ‘Why are there so many species on the planet?’ Like, why isn’t there just one type of tree or one type of bird? We strive to understand the evolutionary forces behind what’s known as speciation, which is when one species splits into two.”

This is exactly where Villa’s lice-porn project started. To explain, it helps to know that big birds have big lice and little birds have little lice. For Villa’s experiment, he started by throwing a whole bunch of lice onto two kinds of pigeons — some with big feathers, some with small feathers. Following the lice blast, the birds preened themselves, causing the lice to adapt to their environment. The little lice fit nicely in the little birds’ feather folds, while the big lice were picked off by the bird because they had nowhere to hide. Over on the big bird, meanwhile, the big lice fit just fine in the feather folds, while the smaller lice eventually died off via natural selection because they produced fewer eggs than the big lice.

How this image is not a meme is beyond me.

Four years later, Villa reintroduced the little lice and big lice into the same environment — a bird, of course — but they wouldn’t breed. Villa had to find out why, which isn’t possible while the lice are hanging out on the bird; hence the situation with the iPhone and the heating pad. Eventually it was discovered that the two different types of lice were willing to breed, but that they were unable to due to their height difference and their parts no longer lined up.

The ability to breed together is a common test of speciation, but it’s normally done retroactively, i.e., scientists usually take two animals who seem similar and try to breed them to see if they’re the same species — if they can’t, that may mean they’re separate species. For Villa’s experiment, it was done proactively. In just four years and more than 60 generations of lice, they were able to illustrate how speciation occurs, because while those lice weren’t separate species yet, this was basically the direction they were heading, as shown by the fact that they could no longer mate with one another.

And this, friends, is just one reason why scientists might try to capture videos of animals banging each other. There are many! If you’re still thinking about that panda thing from earlier, for example, let me explain: Pandas are notoriously bad at breeding. Even in the wild, the lady panda’s window for baby-makin’ is just two to four days per year. The entire rest of the year, pandas just stuff their faces while the dude pandas stare forlornly at their blue balls. That’s part of the reason why pandas have such a fragile existence (the other reason is, of course, us, because of course it is).

In captivity, pandas have an even harder time mating for a host of reasons. For one, they don’t get to choose a mate — a lady panda is just stuck with whatever bamboo-munching schlub they throw in a cage with her. Which brings us to another reason for captive pandas’ poor breeding: weight. With less exercise in captivity, pandas can become overweight, as evidenced by this coverage of Chuang Chuang’s “sex diet” back in 2007.

Then there’s another issue, which is that some experts argue that captive pandas don’t know how to mate. Out of the wild and robbed of some of their natural instincts, captive pandas don’t know what to do, and since they don’t have the advantage of learning from magazines hidden in the woods, it was up to science to create panda porn.

“Damn it, I just want to watch CSI!”

The idea is simple enough, and basically involves showing videos to pandas of other pandas breeding, hopefully educating the pandas to be ready when their super-short breeding window opens up (because porn is a great way to teach anyone about how real sex works!). This has been going on since at least 2000. Scientists in China and Thailand have claimed that it’s been very successful, citing the birth of panda cubs as its direct impact, but the folks at Colorado’s panda preservation organization Pandas International tell me they doubt the effectiveness of this method, citing the panda’s poor eyesight and the fact that no one outside of China and Thailand has been able to replicate it.

The benefits of panda porn — assuming that this is what’s actually doing the job — is of course the rise in the paltry panda population, which, while still being highly vulnerable, has been increasing in recent years, thanks to efforts to reintroduce captive pandas to the wild. At last count in 2014, it was found that 1,864 pandas were in the wild, up from 1,596 in 2003. So, panda porn for the win!

As for how panda porn is made, it seems that it’s mostly a byproduct of our voyeuristic relationship with panda bears. Captive pandas are being filmed constantly. In fact, if you go to iPanda, you can watch pandas live 24/7 all over the world — by watching way more panda sex than I was comfortable with, I was able to discern that at least some panda porn came from iPanda. As for the rest, it’s hard to say, especially since China tends to be secretive about basically everything, including panda fucking.

While panda porn comes via livestream, getting animals mating on film in the wild is a much more complicated endeavor. As anatomist Joy Reidenberg, who produced the PBS nature series Sex in the Wild, tells me, “Filming mating in the wild takes a lot of preparation beforehand. Lots of background reading, lots of phone calls and letters to engage the right people and get permissions. You also need to talk to those who study the behavior of the given animal to figure out the best way to know when, where and what to do in order to get the right film shot.” Reidenberg brought these experts onboard the show’s production teams as guides, so they could both explain an animal’s behavior and help to find the best places to shoot without disturbing their habitat (thus changing their behaviors).

One set of researchers who’ve worked with Reidenberg on such a project are Dara Orbach and Bill Keener, both of whom study dolphins and porpoises. Orbach, a marine biologist, explains, “I travel around the world filming dolphins and porpoises copulating in the wild, then I dissect their genitalia to better understand their mating behavior.” After years and years of doing so, the two best places she’s found to film these behaviors are a very specific spot in New Zealand, and strangely enough, on the Golden Gate Bridge.

In New Zealand, the site benefits from a unique set of circumstances that allow for filming. “Basically, there’s a very deep canyon that comes within a few kilometers of shore,” Orbach explains. The dolphins’ prey in that area are squid and lantern fish, which spend all day in the canyon, then rise out at night, which is when the dolphins gobble them up. During the day, however, the dolphins have little else to do with their time except get busy, so Orbach and her crew spend days at a time filming them from a boat to better understand their behavior.

In San Francisco, Keener works with Orbach to film porpoises from the Golden Gate Bridge, which has proven to be the world’s number one vantage point for catching prime porpoise pounding. Once again, this is due to the unique geography. As Keener explains, “The ocean is miles and miles wide and then it comes into this bottleneck where it’s just a mile wide, which is where the Golden Gate Bridge is. Then, it opens back up again into the bay, which is also miles wide.” Basically, it’s shaped like an hourglass, and at the center is the Golden Gate Bridge. Because it’s such a narrow spot, porpoises can be spotted easily there as they pass from the bay to the ocean and vice versa.

Orbach confides that dolphins don’t really have any issue with mating while people are around, but porpoises are notoriously shy, which is why the vantage point of the bridge is so handy: There would be no way to film them doing the deed otherwise because they’d get camera-shy at the first sign of a boat.

This is a pretty great example of how two species — and pretty similar ones, at that — can react very differently in the presence of humans, which is part of the reason why filming any wild animal takes a great deal of research, a lot of time and the right set of conditions. For example, sometimes researchers have to utilize “hides,” or ostensibly inconspicuous huts used to disguise the photographer. Hidden cameras and even robot animals are being utilized now, too.

While there are a variety of sub-reasons why this photography is done, the most important is conservation. By understanding how these animals behave — mating included — we can better understand how to, you know, not kill them. These videos uncovering their overall behavior is where most of our existing animal sex tapes come from — it’s merely part of the wider study. Through happenstance, though, amazing discoveries can be made, like this video of two angler fish mating, recently filmed by Rebikoff-Niggeler Foundation.

If you’re watching that video with the sound off, you may be wondering where the male is. Well, he’s actually a tiny little appendage on that big female, as male angler fish are sometimes just 1/40th the size of females. To breed, the males permanently fuse to the female to supply her with sperm, so, yeah, male angler fish don’t have commitment issues. Previously, this act had only been observed on dead angler fish. Because of its rarity — and the utter horror that is angler fish sex — it’s pretty much the mack-daddy of all animal sex videos, making that gross lice sex from earlier appear almost quaint in comparison.