The Devil’s Details: The Whale with a P***s in its Mouth

Warning: This post contains the word “penis” – several times. Rest assured that it is not, in fact, about penises.

You can read the full article here, but I just found this too bizarre and amazing not to share it with you.

A team of scientists have discovered what is, for all intents and purposes, a penis attached to a bowhead whale’s palate. Fortunately it turns out it’s not the baby-making kind, so that’s at least one awkwardness out of the way.

Dr. Alexander Werth and his colleagues were observing an Inuit whale hunt (in the interests of science, naturally). Apparently this is the best way to get access to fresh whale tissue, which I was not aware was a commonly sought-after thing.

In any case, as they were observing the dissection, they noticed a very large ridge running along the roof of the whale’s mouth. It was nearly twelve feet long, which begs the natural question: how did they not know about this before? After all, surely these whale anatomists must spend a lot of time inside whales’ mouths, no?

What was astonishing to learn was that, when the hunters cut into this organ, it bled – massively. Sort of like if, you know, the same thing happened to a penis (don’t linger too long on that thought).

The bowhead whale's second "penis".

The bowhead whale’s second “penis”.

When they did further studies, they found that the interior structure of this odd organ did indeed function in a very similar way to the reproductive penis: it contained a mass of spongy tissue that could easily fill with blood, expanding the organ. When they discovered that this enormous pseudo-penis extended directly to the base of the brain, they started to have an inkling. The bowhead whale, out of all the species there are, is one of the most insulated, which makes sense for its arctic environment. In fact, it’s so well insulated that it can’t get rid of its own body heat efficiently. They suspected that in swelling this organ (effectively getting an erection in their mouth), they could put a large amount of their blood in contact with a vast quantity of freezing water. This would then flow back into the whale’s body, thus cooling it.

Where it gets really weird, though, is that they also discovered the surface of this organ contained a large number of extremely sensitive nerve endings – also rather like a penis. Presumably this wasn’t for the sake of having a good time, and indeed it appears to be related to the whale’s method of feeding. It takes a huge amount of energy for a whale to allow its mouth to fill with water, and then compress it so that it flows back out through their baleen. So much energy, in fact, that the whale probably wouldn’t want to waste it unless there was also a substantial quantity of food in the water. By sensing when the water contains a sufficient amount of food, it can ensure that no excess energy is wasted.

So anatomically, the bowhead whale has a fully functional penis in its mouth (sans the baby-making part). Which makes it one of the slightly weirder animals in the world.

Daily Photo: November 10, 2011

Do you like it? I drew it all by my lonesome!

My wife wanted an illustration of a particular synaptic connection: two neurons, complete with dendritic spines. I must say, I’m kind of pleased with it!

Thought of the Week: What’s Going on in There?

I have a confession to make. It’s kind of a big deal, and it’s taking me a lot of courage to share this with you all, so please don’t laugh. Are you ready? Here goes:

I may not, in fact, be entirely sane.

What’s that? You already knew? How insulting.

Okay, fair enough. Most of us are pretty whacked out at times, and sanity is in the eye of the psychologist. Although I kind of think they’re nuts too.

Who does a therapist go to for therapy? Is there some kind of super-therapist? Maybe Batman goes to see him.

Anyway, it occurred to me quite some time ago that my brain is up to no good, and I’m the one stuck with the consequences. For example, sometimes my brain tells me that my life is not worth living, that I’ve brought nothing but pain and misery on everyone around me, and that they’d all be better off if I didn’t even exist.

Anyone else ever have those thoughts? Congratulations, you’re insane too.

Other times, my brain tells me that it’s a good idea to lie down on the floor in a ball while my wife screams at me to stop lying on the floor in a ball. It seems to think that she’s using some kind of reverse psychology, and in fact wants me to stay down there. Just to make sure, my brain won’t let me move for several hours afterwards. If I try, it makes my tummy feel bad.

Takers, anyone? Maybe you’re slightly saner than you thought.

There are, of course, the times when my brain lets me think that things are going all right, that life is good, and that the writing I’m doing is strong. It even convinces me that just around the corner, if I hang on a little bit longer, might be fame and fortune as a world-reknown author.

In the words of Homer Simpson, Stupid brain.

Now scientists are doing some pretty awesome stuff at working out just what’s going on in there. They discovered that the funny-looking wrinkly lump of gook inside your head is actually an incredibly complex network of neurons and connections, forming literally trillions of possible pathways for electrical conductivity. Sort of like the wiring in our basement. They worked out that this little bit of the brain in the back called the cerebellum is responsible for motor control. If this bit gets damaged, you can’t really move anymore. There are some pretty nasty genetic diseases that do this.

They also worked out how the neuronal system works (sort of). Ions pass in and out of the neuronal cells, carrying charge with them. When the charge reaches a joining point, it makes the cell spit out a whole host of chemicals so that the next cell can pick them up. These chemicals, or “neurotransmitters” (big air quotes), kind of make sure signals go where they’re supposed to. Sometimes the insulation on these neurons breaks down, and the charge sort of leaks out. This means not as much gets to the next cell, and all sorts of things go wrong. Multiple sclerosis does this.

Stupid multiple sclerosis.

And sometimes, the brain just messes up completely, and spits out too much neurotransmitter, or not enough, or the wrong damn kind. Now, figuring out why this happens is still being worked on. Ironically, some of the drugs that are supposed to help with this aren’t even fully understood themselves. Chlorpromazine was intended as an anesthetic in the fifties; it turned out to be more useful as an antipsychotic in schizophrenic patients.

So we’re sort of trying to figure it all out. The scientists are working on it from a chemical point of view (my wife conducts research on a particular type of chemical sensor with important roles in learning and memory); the shrinks are working on it from a cognitive point of view; the priests are working on it from a god point of view.

But in the end, my brain is still kind of messed up. It makes me do these pretty odd things, like repeating phrases over and over again, shaking when I’m upset (getting upset, a lot), feeling generally miserable and depressed, actually enjoying feeling miserable and depressed, and consistently doing things that I know are going to cause major problems down the line. I checked it out; I don’t really quite fit depression; I don’t really quite fit bipolar; I don’t really quite fit asperger’s; I don’t really quite fit schizophrenia (I have an uncle who is, though; he barks at the moon and is otherwise a lovely guy).

It could be some time before someone works out what’s going on with my brain. It could be the scientists; it could be the shrinks. It could be my wife, though I think she’d just as much rather I get rid of the damn thing entirely, and upgrade to a new one. I sort of agree – it is getting a little long in the tooth.

Until then, though, I guess I’ll just let my brain figure itself out. If it can’t, it’s no membrane off my frontal lobe.

Hey – maybe your brains can help! What do you think my brain is up to?