Using Sex Toys To Tease Out Turtle Boners, For Science


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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A tough day in the lab for this spiny softshell turtle. Donald McKnight

In the pursuit of science and knowledge, biologists are using sex toys to tease out turtle boners.

Most turtle species are fairly easy to identify the sex of, usually through sexual dimorphic features like a different shell shape or coloring. However, for the ones that are a little trickier to discern, biologists Donald McKnight, a PhD candidate at James Cook University in Australia, has developed an easy non-invasive solution using a vibrating sex toy.


As McKnight and his team – Hunter Howell, Ethan Hollender, and Day Ligon – wrote in their study, “Good vibrations: a novel method for sexing turtles,” the technique involves stimulating the bottom of the turtle’s shell and tail with an 18-centimeter (7-inch) silver vibrator.

Turtles, just like all species of reptiles, amphibians, and birds, have their genitals hidden in their cloaca, so the male's penis is only visible when an erection appears. If an erect penis does pop out, you’ve got yourself a male. If an erection doesn’t appear after 10 minutes, it’s fair assume it's a female.

This method, it seems, is quite the fine art.

"It only really works well when a turtle is fairly relaxed to begin with," McKnight told IFScience. "Second, it is a trial-and-error process when working with a species for the first time. The turtles respond visibly to the vibrator, so if you are in an area or doing something that they don't like, they will tense up and hold their limbs and tail tightly against the body.


"Ultimately, most erections happened when the vibrator was on the tail itself, but turtles generally won't let you start there. So you first have to spend a few minutes on other parts of the body, and periodically test the tail."

They tested out the method on four species of freshwater turtle representing three different families: western chicken turtles, Mississippi mud turtles, common musk turtles, and spiny softshell turtles. Each species appeared to react differently to the vibrator, so the researchers had to fine-tune their techniques depending on the turtle.

The method was successful at sexing the spiny softshell turtle 100 percent of the time. “One of them was showing his penis in like 4 seconds,” McKnight added.

For the Mississippi mud turtles, there was an 80 percent success rate, the western chicken turtles 64.7 percent, and the common musk turtles just 55.6 percent.


It all sounds pretty funny, but the technique could save researchers a lot of time and effort. Knowing the sex of the turtles is a key component for population studies, particularly those threatened with extinction.

“It is cheaper, easier to implement in the field, and less invasive than many of the alternative techniques, and it has already proved useful in our own research," the study says.


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