There may be no species closer to the black brink of extinction than the largest freshwater turtle on Earth, the Yangtze giant softshell.
Only four of these critically endangered reptiles are left in existence, due to habitat loss, pollution, and hunting. Turtle bones and shells are also popular in the alternative medicine trade, where they are purported to cure everything from Parkinson’s disease to incongruities between one’s yin and yang. (Note: They do not.)
Just one of the remaining animals is female. Scientists have access to only one male softshell turtle. (The other two males are in Vietnam and unavailable for complex political reasons.) That male suffered a horrific battle wound in his youth, leaving the highly specialized tip of his penis mangled to the point of near uselessness.
Every year, scientists watch as the male mounts the female, who then goes on to lay hundreds upon hundreds of eggs. Each clutch is a potential life raft for the species, a chance at salvation. But time after time, the orbs go to rot in the ground, unfertilized—a pit of broken promises, a nest of missed connections.
Given these circumstances, it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the species hinges on the ability of scientists to bring this male softshell turtle to climax and use his seed to artificially inseminate the lone female. And for this, they will employ something called electroejaculation.
Let’s start by first acknowledging that electroejaculation is probably the most absurd word ever cobbled into the English language, a word that seems born out of William S. Burroughs’ typewriter, not the wildlife conservation movement. But you can’t argue the term’s descriptiveness.
Put simply, electroejaculation is the name for when you insert a probe into an animal’s rectum and deliver electrical pulses to the nerves responsible for erection and ejaculation, causing the male to ejaculate semen. Veterinarians and breeders do this to check the virility of livestock. Conservationists and zookeepers use electroejaculation to assist in selective breeding and artificial insemination.
And while this all sounds very much like a Tesla-made torture device, it’s for a good cause. Let me give you a short list of the animals electroejaculation has been used to obtain semen from, many of which are endangered species whose populations are being enhanced with captive breeding projects: cheetahs, black-footed ferrets, Siberian tigers, Galapagos tortoises, agouti, camels, chinchillas, peccaries, Iberian red deer, Spanish ibex, brindled gnu, Japanese black bears, African elephants, giant pandas, macaques, and domestic cats.
Now, some of you may be wondering about the ethics of flooding another animal’s colon with electricity. For starters, is it painful? Because it sounds painful.
To find out, I called up a large-animal veterinarian named John Parks, who uses electroejaculation to test the health and reproductive potential of bulls and stallions.
“It doesn’t really hurt,” says Parks. “It’s more of a weird sensation, kind of like those buzzers people used to wear on their hands.”
Well, uh, ahem … how does he know?
Parks says it’s pretty standard to have veterinary students hold the probe in their hands and then turn the sucker on. Nobody screams or sues, but it gives the students a better idea of what they’re shoving up a bull’s tuckus.
(In case you’re wondering, electroejaculation can be used on humans, too, specifically for those with spinal injuries. Of course, like virtually everything else imaginable, some also use electrostimulation recreationally.)
The nerves in question here are extremely sensitive, so it doesn’t take a whole lot of juice to get them tuned up. Though this isn’t to say getting an animal to ejaculate by way of electricity is as easy as flipping a switch. The electroejaculation machines used by most vets, like the Lane Pulsator preferred by Parks, come equipped with programs that produce a series of increasingly intense pulses. Too much stimulation and the nerves become unresponsive to electrical advances.
“Each animal is an individual,” says Parks. “Some animals respond very early in the series of the program, and others respond kind of late.”
Veterinarians have other ways to extract semen from a bull. You can use digital manipulation, a technical term for a hand job. Or you can plunge your forearm into the animal’s rectum and massage the nerves manually. You can also get the bull to mount a female and then guide his erect penis into an artificial vagina, but that increases the chances of injury to the animals or the artificial vagina-holder.
In wildlife conservation, still more problems arise. An elephant’s penis, for instance, responds to stimulation by flailing about like one of those inflatable dancy things you find outside car dealerships. In nature, this is simply how the elephant manages to insert his penis, which is more than 3 feet long, into the female’s vagina. But under controlled conditions, this penile pummeling makes digital stimulation nearly impossible. It’s also rather dangerous for anyone standing within a penis-length of the animal, as evidenced by the researcher now known on the Internet as the guy who got a black eye from an elephant penis.
Field collections from wild animals are usually done while animals are anesthetized. And since the animals can’t remain knocked out for long, time becomes a factor and electroejaculation is a handy shortcut.
Obviously, scientists would prefer that animals reproduce naturally, but this isn’t always as easy as plopping a male and a female in the same enclosure with a bowl of spaghetti. Some animals only reproduce at certain times of the year or undergo complex courtship rituals that can be cussed up by living in captivity. Pandas are the most infamous example of this problem, which is why there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to “panda pornography.”
Sometimes, electroejaculation and artificial insemination just make sense from a logistical point of view.
“It is much easier to transport semen than the entire animal,” says Justine O’Brien, the scientific director at the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Reproductive Research Center.
This becomes especially important for animals like the rhinoceros. Wild populations continue to get gunned down by poachers seeking the animal’s stupidly valuable horn. Some believe rhino horn can cure everything from gout and snake bite to devil possession. (Note: It does not.) Captive rhinos represent a genetic savings account for the species. For instance, there are currently 197 southern white rhinos in North America, but captive breeding success has been lackluster. Fewer than 20 percent of the animals that were born here have gone on to reproduce.
By using electroejaculation and artificial insemination, O’Brien and her colleagues may be better equipped to sustain the captive rhino population and contribute to reintroductions into the wild. As noted in her recent paper, these techniques even allow scientists to choose the sex of the sperm they insert, selecting for more reproductively valuable females.
Oh yeah, and there’s this: “Semen collected by this method can also be cryopreserved and stored indefinitely, allowing for males to reproduce long after they have died,” says O’Brien.
All of which brings us back to the Yangtze giant softshell turtle.
Given how many species we’ve now performed electroejaculation on, you’d think saving the softshells would be nothing a few well-placed electrodes couldn’t fix. But each time electroejaculation is used on a new species, the hardware and technique have to be modified to fit the organism. Obviously, there’s a big difference between the rectum of an elephant and that of a chinchilla. But when you go from mammals to reptiles, things get even trickier.
In softshell turtles, the reproductive anatomy of both sexes lies within a slit called the cloaca. This kitchen sink orifice is also where urine, feces, eggs, and erect penises exit or enter the body. So whatever kind of electro probe you decide to put in there, it has to allow room for the penis to emerge. Speaking of the penis:
“The penis of a softshell turtle is quite bizarre,” says Rick Hudson, a herpetologist and president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “It has all these strange appendages that make it look like an octopus or a hydra.”
Presumably, all those bells and whistles correspond to nooks and crannies within the female’s cloaca. The truth is, says Hudson, we don’t really know. But until we figure out what’s going on with the tentacles down there, any attempts at artificial insemination will literally be a shot in the dark.
And this is what has happened. While electroejaculation has been able bypass the male’s defective apparatus and produce semen, the scientists have yet to figure out the best way to inseminate the female. Unfortunately, we are approaching the point of no return.
“We don’t know how to save and store and preserve this species’ semen or how to freeze it and reconstitute it for later use,” says Hudson. “None of that’s been worked out. So we’re learning on the world’s rarest turtle as we go. It’s rather disconcerting.”
The good news is we’re getting closer. While the last round of eggs was as infertile as ever, Hudson says they found evidence that sperm heads had lodged themselves in the egg membrane. Why they did not push through to fertilize eggs, alas, we do not know.
Both of the turtles that scientists have access to are thought to be more than 100 years old, and while we also don’t know what the maximum lifespan might be for the species, it’s clear that time is running out.
“Any time you’re electroejaculating an animal that old, everything gets kind of tense because that’s an old animal to be shocking,” says Hudson. “It’s a risk, but we have no other choices.”
I’m honestly not sure what’s more desperate—the measures or the times.