Tar Sands Pollution Is Giving Otters Limp Dick

They’re whispering about their penis bones.
They’re whispering about their penis bones.
Photo: Karen Bleier (Getty Images)

Otters’ dick game is getting weaker, and toxic oil waste products are to blame, according to a new study in the journal Chemosphere. By dick game, I mean their actual penis bones, which are getting more brittle. This might sound like it’s just bizarre clickbait, which, yes. But it’s also actual science, and it’s genuinely sad.

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Researchers from McMaster University examined the population of river otters that reside near Alberta’s crude oil hub, which is the world’s largest industrial project. There, fuel is made from tar sands—the sludgy mix of sand, clay, water, and black bitumen that lies underneath the region’s boreal forest.

Since they knew that exposure to compounds found in crude oil can decrease some animals’ reproductive success, the scientists decided to examine the local otters’ long, curved crotch bones, called baculum. To do so, they recruited professional trappers to collect three dozen of the creatures. Then, the team scanned them using computed tomography (better known as CT scans) to peek at their insides.

When they compared those otters’ phallus bones with those of otters from other, less-polluted regions, they found that the control groups’ were stronger and more dense. That was associated, the researchers determined, with the lack of exposure to hydrocarbons.

The scientists also obtained baculum from carcasses they got from fur traders both in and outside of the area, and performed tests to determine how much load the bones could bear before break (cringe). Again, they found that dick bones from otters near the tar sands didn’t hold up to destructive or non-destructive tests as well.

The authors say that Alberta otters’ weakened penis bones could mess with their ability to reproduce, which could have impacts all up and down the food chain. According to the research, river otters are a “sentinel species,” meaning they often are affected by exposure to contaminants before other species register those changes. To make matters worse, they fear that tar sands pollution could have an effect on humans’ reproductive systems as well.

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This isn’t the first study to find that pollution is, uh, disrupting otters’ penile function. A 2013 study found that in England, exposure to persistent organic pollutants in rivers was linked to decreased otter penis sizes, potentially due to the toxins’ ability to disrupt hormonal functioning. The same toxins could be having the same effect on people’s penises, too.

Weirdly, though toxins from Alberta crude made otter dick bones weaker, the scientists also found that exposure to some contaminants, including strontium, iron, and retene, were actually associated with stronger baculum. Talk about toxic masculinity.

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The study provides yet more proof that fossil fuels are absolutely noxious, and that they could have all sorts of awful effects that we don’t even understand yet. It’s time to get off of them immediately for our own sake as well as the sake of otters’ ability to get off, too.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.

DISCUSSION

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The scientists also obtained baculum from carcasses they got from fur traders both in and outside of the area, and performed tests to determine how much load the bones could bear before break (cringe).

From the folks at wikipedia on load testing with an example stress/strain curve:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress%E2%80%93strain_curve