Shedding light on the mystery of reproduction

Originally from Toronto, Dara Orbach followed a long winding path to get to where she is in her marine mammal career. She began her studies with two Bachelor’s degrees – one in comparative religious studies and the other in animal biology – before deciding to pursue her career near the ocean. The sound of the waves, the smell of salt in the air and the sandal lifestyle attract her and inspire her to seek higher education researching marine mammals.

The field being as highly competitive as it is, Dara Orbach makes a strategic decision to specialize in bat echolocation for her Master’s. The ocean enthusiast is hopeful that she might eventually be able to apply this knowledge to marine mammals. After graduating, she pursued a PhD. In an effort to find the research project of her dreams, in 2009 she attends the biennial conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy in Québec City.

A life-changing conference

At the conference, she attends a presentation on reproduction in dolphins that captures her interest. Much remains to be discovered on this subject and, preferring to think outside the box, Dara Orbach begins to reflect on possible implications. She began her research on marine mammal reproduction and the anatomy of their genital organs, only to realize that the topic is much more complicated than it appears: there is a whole world to discover behind simple intercourse!

Using genitals collected from animals that died of natural causes, Dara Orbach develops silicone moulds of their genitals and then takes a CT-scan of them (computed tomography method) to obtain a three-dimensional image. She then discovers a wide interspecific variety and a co-evolution between penises and vaginas in marine mammals.

The researcher notes that the anatomy of male reproductive systems is often much better known than those of females. For example, in insects, the male reproductive apparatus is so varied that it may be sufficient to distinguish one species from another. However, Dara Orbach has demonstrated that there is also a wide variety and diversity of genitals in female cetaceans, despite being less visible than those of their male counterparts. She now aims to inventory and characterize the genitals of all species of marine mammals, regardless of their gender!

From reproduction to conservation

Such knowledge of marine mammal genital organs can be very useful for conservation initiatives.  As the researcher points out, “Better understanding the nuts and bolts of breeding is essential for maximizing the success rate of our efforts to protect and preserve marine mammals

Last updated: August 2018