First Ever Sighting of Humpback Whales Having Sex Features Two Males

Two male humpback whales copulating

Humpback whales are incredible marine animals that researchers have been studying for decades. However, very little is known about their sexual activity, and there are no records of humpback whale copulation—until now. A new study published in Marine Mammal Science describes an incredible encounter off the coast of Maui, where a group of researchers observed two male humpback whales copulating.

It's actually not unusual for animals to engage in nonreproductive sexual behavior, which is when sex occurs between two individuals of the same sex or individuals at an age where reproduction isn't possible. Of course, we know that humans do this all the time, but it's also seen in a wide range of animal species. Same-sex sexual interactions have been observed in many marine species, including walruses, killer whales, and several types of dolphins.

What makes the humpback whale observation so important is the sheer lack of information we have about their sexual behavior. In many other species, two males engaging in sexual activity can happen for a variety of reasons. According to the study's authors, these can include learning reproductive behaviors, establishing dominance, and reducing social tension.

Two male humpback whales copulating

In this particular case, the two whales approached the boat when the brown coloration of one whale, called Whale A in the study, drew their attention. Whale A, who had a significant jaw injury, was emaciated and in poor health, swam quite slowly. He was followed by Whale B, who failed at evading him. From the photographs taken of the encounter, it was clear that Whale B's penis was extruded for the entire pursuit, and, at times, he penetrated Whale A.

To identify the sex of the whales, photos of their tail flukes were uploaded to a database that matched them against other photographic information. Both whales had been tagged by the Pacific Whale Foundation, with Whale A having his sex confirmed previously through a biopsy. Whale B's gender is clear from the photographic evidence taken on the day of the encounter.

While the motive for the sexual behavior they observed isn't totally clear, the researchers believe that Whale A's declining health may play a role. It's entirely possible that Whale A is dying and Whale B was attempting to exert dominance or reinforce a social relationship. In either case, the fact that the encounter was recorded at all is a big step forward in understanding this behavior in whales.

h/t: [Science Alert]

All images via Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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