Did 'The Bachelorette' just eat my research?

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Did 'The Bachelorette' just eat my research?

Giant mollusks are just about the only thing more interesting to me than who gets the rose

Bachelorette fans had been waiting for this moment for weeks: in last week's episode, contestant Colton Underwood was on the verge of revealing to Bachelorette Becca Kufrin that despite being a sweet, fun, and beautiful 26-year-old man, he is still a virgin. It was a typical second date in Bachelor land: lounging on a yacht in the Bahamas, chatting about the status of their “relationship” between make out sessions, when they were interrupted by a local man approaching on a boat.

“You know what you need?” he asked, “Some conch!”

As someone who studies sea slugs, in that moment a giant mollusk with supposed aphrodisiac qualities was just about the only thing that could be more interesting to me than Colton’s virginity. (The man called it "Bahamian Viagra.") Colton and Becca took the bait and dove in to harvest one of the many conchs in the water below. Back on the boat, the Bahamian man cut it open and pulled out the “pistol,” a long, thin, and slightly phallic part of the conch, claiming it to be an aphrodisiac. They ate the pistol, did a conch dance, joked about Becca getting some conch, and the impending virginity conversation was put off until later.

At this point I no longer cared about the conversation, because I was dying to know: what did they just eat? Before the new episode airs Monday night, let's dive into the scientific literature to find some answers.

The species of conch that is commonly eaten in the Bahamas is the queen conch, Lobatus gigas. It has been studied for nearly a century, but its aphrodisiac effects have never been explicitly tested. The aphrodisiac organ referred to as “the pistol” is actually called the crystalline style. While many think that it is the penis (yes, conchs do have penises), the crystalline style is actually involved in digestion. It is a gelatinous rod coated in digestive enzymes and composed of glycoproteins, which are protein molecules with sugar attached, increasing both rigidity and gelatinousness.The rod rubs against the inside of the digestive tract, dissolving the enzymes so they can be used to break down the algae that the conch eats. So it's a rigid rod, and requires rubbing in order to function - I can see the source of confusion about what exactly this thing is. However, there is no logical reason why eating this body part would have the same effect as Sildenafil, the active ingredient of Viagra.

Exploitation of animal parts as aphrodisiacs has been going on for millennia and is a global phenomenon, extending far beyond the conchs of the Bahamas. Scientific reviews on the subject (and my own literature searches) reveal that many supposed aphrodisiacs, such as the queen conch and rhinoceros horns, have never been subjected to the rigors of scientific study. Spanish flies, toad skin, and "mad honey," made from Rhododendron nectar, all contain known toxins and are outright dangerous to humans, with little or no evidence that they produce sexual stimulation. Extracts from oysters and a sea slug have both been linked to an increase in sexual activity in mice, but with few replicates.

And remember ambergris, featured in Moby Dick as a coveted perfume ingredient in the 1800s? Ambergris is a waxy substance produced in the gut of whales, to protect them during digestion of sharp objects such as squid beaks. One study on the effect of ambergris on dissected rodent muscles (the ethics of which is a subject for a different op-ed) might demonstrate a physiological function similar to Viagra, but it did not test sexual activity. Besides, the only way to get ambergris is if the whale vomits or poops it into the ocean and you happen to come across it, or if you kill a whale and harvest it from the inside. Is your boner so important that you want to kill a whale for it?

There are now laws and enforcement agencies in place to protect certain species from being killed for human pleasure. For example, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, and China has cracked down on not just poaching, but on the purchasing and consumption of illegal animal products, including supposed aphrodisiacs such as tiger penises, rhinoceros horns, and deer musk. But whales and tigers benefit from being flashy, charismatic targets for conservation, while the queen conch is a beloved food in the Bahamas, and as such has suffered from intense overfishing.

Individual conchs can live as long as 30 years, but in the Bahamas many don’t make it that long. Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a no-take Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Bahamas, has been a well-enforced refuge for fished species such as queen conch, Nassau grouper, and spiny lobster since the 1980s. A recent study revealed that the conch population inside the MPA is actually declining, perhaps because several of the fish that also benefit from the MPA’s protection feed on juvenile conchs. Adult conchs are surviving, but juveniles are being eaten before they've had a chance to mate, so the population is slowly dying of old age. 

Conchs in the Bahamas are generally very spread out, but they aggregate to find a mate (a bunch of lonely souls coming together to find their mate – sound familiar yet?), which may explain why Colton and Becca came across so many of them on their date. While we don't know the full story behind the specific conch that they chose, it is completely possible that Colton picked up a conch just as it was about to lose its virginity at the ripe age of 26.

Don't get me wrong; I am not suggesting that this conch was taken illegally, or that the conch fishery is being mismanaged. All I'm saying is, laws only go so far to protect these animals, and the rest depends on our personal choices. Next time, take the rose, but leave the conch!