Friday Weird Science: This quail has a cloth fetish

Aug 24 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

No really. A fetish. Or rather, an animal MODEL of a fetish.

Or at least, that's the idea behind today's study, which is a study of sexual conditioning.

And WHAT animal is going to be the subject of such scientific debauchery???


Everyone please give a big welcome to one dirty little bird, the Japanese QUAIL!!!

Koksal et al. "An animal model of fetishism" Behavior Research and Therapy, 2004.

Now, we should start with a brief description of the word 'fetish'. When the authors of this study are talking about a fetish, they are referring to sexual arousal in response to something that is not normally considered sexually arousing. In humans this can be anything from feet to bowling balls to food. The current idea is that fetishes are learned, not innate (you cannot be born attracted to bowling balls), and are thought to be learned when someone is expanding the range of what they consider sexually-arousing stimuli (so for bowling balls, the Big Lebowski may have played a very distinct role in your development).

Sometimes, these learning experiences result in much stronger reactions to the specific stimulus (say, a bowling ball) than are usual, resulting in something we call a fetish, when a non-animate object is "the exclusive or preferred method of achieving sexual gratification" (can't just feel kinda good in a bowling alley, it has to be the only way).

That's in humans. In non-humans, however, what we see as non-normal sexual behavior is often the result of a response to a particular stimulus. Like this:

(These videos NEVER get old. Never)

Turtles respond to a specific stimulus: hump something round. This means they hump lots of things that are roundish...but not turtles. Like shoes, and pans. There are similar examples in other animals, like beetles, who have evolved to hump things that are brown and shiny. While the females of the species are indeed brown and shiny, they can't compete with the beer bottles piling up next to the highway, with the result that the beetle ladies go lonely.

But those are things which are basically extensions of a natural, evolved behavioral stereotype. Hump something round. Hump something brown and shiny.

But you can also TRAIN animals, using basic behavioral conditioning, to have similar, somewhat amusing sexual highjinks, but this time with something that you could never mistake for a member of the species. Scientists call this sexual conditioning. You take a male, and you expose it, say, to a light. The light signals the opening of a door, behind which a toothsome lady is waiting. After a few experiences of this, the male will start to respond to the LIGHT as well as to the lady. He's been sexually conditioned. The good thing about this is that you can often get more offspring from a single sexual encounter when you have the conditioning in place (useful for agriculture, for example).

And it's also useful in the lab. Sexual conditioning in the lab can be used to study atypical sexual behavior, how it might develop in animals and thus in humans, or how sexual dysfunction might impact specific aspects of the conditioned behavior. The authors of this study were looking to make a model of sexual conditioning, to explore these aspects. Amusingly, they go into a good bit of detail about how you just CAN'T do this in humans. First, you have you get your humans only once they're over 18, when they've basically formed most of their sexual preferences and any fetishes if they are going to have any. Secondly, there's the major ethical issue of giving a human a cue light behind which a lovely lady awaits. In the end? Best to go with the quail.

With the quail, the authors wanted more than sexual conditioning. They wanted to produce an animal model of a fetish. This would mean that there couldn't be a lady quail at the end of the tunnel. Instead, the quail has to, in the end, prefer SOMETHING ELSE for sexual gratification.

They started with sexually conditioning the quail. The experimental subjects received a cue, in addition to the lady quail, of a "terrycloth object", which I think was probably a washcloth but they weren't specific. The terrycloth group was training to grab and mount the washcloth in response to a cue, before getting access to a lady. So they were able to get a sexual response in the quail to a non-sexual object, one that did not develop in a non-sexual training session (they tried it with food, and the quails couldn't be brought to care about the washcloth when there was food to be had). And it persisted. Even after the ladies were no longer presented, the washcloth group (as compared to random exposure to washcloths, no washcloths, etc) continued to vigorously romance their terrycloth darlings.

Here you can see approaches and copulatory response. The right graph shows extinction (when there is no longer a lady available). You can see the other cues extinguished quickly, but the terrycloth group was undeterred.

But what characterizes a fetish? Well, it has to be sexual gratification (check, quails are humping washcloths). It has to persist (check! Even after the female access is gone, the males continued to love up the washcloths). So the authors conclude that this animal model has some potential as an animal model of a fetish.

But what is the other thing that needs to happen? The fetish object needs to become the PREFERRED object. In some of the cases, this actually happened, the male would continue having at the washcloth even after the female was introduced (though I personally wonder if that's a stereotyped behavior that they can't stop halfway through). So this has some of the evidence that you can train male quail to get a washcloth fetish. They want to use it to look at development of fetishes, how they occur, trying to understand what role biology and environment and development might play. But me, I've got a lower bar. I'm just looking forward to youtube vids of quails humping washcloths.

Köksal F, Domjan M, Kurt A, Sertel O, Orüng S, Bowers R, & Kumru G (2004). An animal model of fetishism. Behaviour research and therapy, 42 (12), 1421-34 PMID: 15500813

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