Poor turtles. Slowness, a rather wrinkly exterior, and the tendency to duck into their shells rather than face a threat like a man, all contribute to the male turtle’s reputation as a less-than-studly beast. Compared to say, their cousins the saltwater croc or even a rooster, these reptiles seem, well, kind of wimpy. But, as Darren Naish so nobly argues in the Terrifying Sex Organs of Male Turtles, these ancient tetrapods are hung in a way that would humble Dirk Diggler. And sea turtles are no exception. A green sea turtle (C. mydas) with a shell length of 80-110 cm often sports a sword well over 30 cm. We’re talking a two-foot long johnson. And the mighty leatherback? Well, just check out the pictures in Naish’s article. And these penises aren’t just for show.
When it comes to sex, sea turtles are no stranger to long bouts of arduous armorous activity. Males will mount a female from above, using two front claws and a hook on the tail to establish a tripod attachment. He then proceeds to hang out here for hours or even days at a time. Should a female not wish to engage, she can simply rest on the seafloor and consign the hopeful suitor to hours of circling above. Or, she can fold her rear flippers together (its the equivalent of the universal crossed legs and arms signifying “not interested” used by single ladies everywhere).
So determined (and non-lazy) are these males, however, that a single male often will latch onto the back of a mating couple. Kind of pointless, but at least he’s trying. And it makes for some spectacular turtle towers. Occasionally, these additional mounts knock off the first male, opening up opportunity for the late comers–pun intended.
And while male mating efforts and physiology are impressive, the females are pretty damn tough too. Hauling several hundred pounds of heft out of the water, up an incline, and through sifting sands to dig nests and lay eggs above the high tide line requires some serious stamina and strength. Rising sea levels make this already significant endeavor even more challenging: females have to go higher up the beach or risk having their nests flooded, drowning the hatchlings. But that’s not the only impact of global warming. Sea turtle sex is determined by temperature. Warmer sand means more females, cooler sand leads to more males. If people worked this way, summer babies would tend to be girls and the winters full of boys. Kind of a crazy concept, but its common for many non-mammal species. And, as the globe heats up, the sea turtle sex ratios will start to skew, threatening future survival of the species.
Despite their slow and shy demeanor, there is evidently quite a lot of gusto in the form of some mighty male members among turtles across the board. And at least for sea turtles, the females impressively rise to their own occasion, too. Makes you wonder what else is hiding beneath those shells…