Do animals masturbate?

The state of the universe.
July 16 2009 2:56 PM

Hands or Paws or Anything They Got

Masturbation in the animal kingdom.

In a research paper titled " The Adaptive Function of Masturbation in a Promiscuous African Ground Squirrel," biologist Jane M. Waterman analyzes the self-pleasuring behavior of a population of squirrels in east-central Namibia. She concludes that masturbation may help to keep the genitals clean and stave off sexually transmitted infections. In a Science column reprinted below, Daniel Engber examined onanism across the animal kingdom.

Click here for a slide show of animal-masturbation videos from YouTube. (Note: This slide show contains graphic images that may not be suitable for all viewers.)
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Isn't it wonderful when science and religion come together? My Slate colleague William Saletan points out that a recent paper has laid the groundwork for a pro-life defense of onanism. According to obstetrician David Greening, a rigorous program of daily masturbation can actually improve sperm quality in men with fertility problems. (Samples collected at the end of the program showed less DNA damage and higher sperm motility than samples from control subjects.) Since masturbation can help you have babies, Saletan argues, it must also serve the "procreative and unitive purposes" described in the Catechism.

Let's take this one step further. If we've redeemed this dangerous supplement for man, what about the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field? Surely what works for God will work for Nature, too: Since masturbation improves fertility, then it ought to be a prime target for natural selection. That is to say, any animal that evolves the ability or inclination for self-pleasure will end up with healthier sperm, and more offspring, than its competitors. Indeed, if you take the theory of evolution seriously—as the Catholic Church has since February—then you might expect that all animals masturbate, or at least all animals with a reproductive system sufficiently like our own.

Sure enough, hairy palms abound in the animal kingdom. (Wikipedia offers a good summary of the evidence.) Dogs, cats, lions, bears, and a number of other mammals self-stimulate with their front paws; randy walruses use their flippers. Horses and donkeys, whose masturbatory habits have been particularly well-studied, engage in "rhythmic bouncing, pressing, or sliding of the erect penis against the abdomen" (PDF); male deer do the same. The 19th-century physiologist Karl Friedrich Burdach has even described something like female ejaculation among solitary mares, which "rub themselves against whatever obstacles they find, often spurting a white, viscous mucus." A bull, meanwhile, stimulates itself by alternately protruding its penis from a genital sheath, while some moose can ejaculate simply by rubbing their antlers on bits of vegetation. According to observations made at the University of Buffalo in the 1940s, both male and female porcupines manipulate their genitals with inanimate objects—they're also known to "seize, straddle, and ride sticks about the cage."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

Needless to say, many animals engage in self-directed oral sex.

Our fellow apes are among the most ardent and industrious masturbators: Female orangutans have been observed to fashion primitive dildos from sticks or pieces of liana, while males stimulate themselves with pieces of fruit, leaves, or other objects. Although it's sometimes said that only mammals masturbate, we have clear examples of autoeroticism among birds, which rub their cloacae on whatever's handy. Turtles have also been observed in the act.

Despite this bestiary of autoeroticism, scientists have spent relatively little time on the question of why animals might have evolved to masturbate. At first glance, the behavior would seem to be maladaptive. First, there's all the energy that's wasted on the production of spilled seed—macaques, for example, are thought to devote between 1 percent and 6 percent of their daily metabolism to the production of ejaculate. Second, it distracts the animal from the more important work of finding food and evading predators, let alone mating. According to the literature on horses, a masturbating stallion sometimes takes on "a trance-like, glazed-eye appearance." What could be more inviting to a hungry bear?

The recent finding that masturbation improves the quality of human sperm supports the notion that it's an evolved trait and not merely a byproduct of our physiology. According to a branch of evolutionary theory called "sperm competition" that developed in the late 1960s, natural selection can produce just such a change in reproductive behavior. The theory focuses on polyandrous species—i.e., those in which a single female takes multiple partners and the sperm from several potential fathers might end up competing to fertilize the same egg. Under those conditions, the relative quality of male ejaculate very clearly determines whose genes are passed on to the next generation.