Magazine article Science News

DNA Tests Find Phony Seal Penises

Magazine article Science News

DNA Tests Find Phony Seal Penises

Article excerpt

For just U.S.$500, a shop in Toronto will supply a seal penis to anyone who wants to make a tonic for a flagging lover. Just check the shop's gold lame boxes--labeled "Product of Canada," like its maple syrup.

The buyer had better beware, warns a team of Canadian scientists who have analyzed DNA from supposed seal penises sold in traditional Chinese medicine shops in Canada, the United States, and Asia. The survey turned up some bona fide seal organs, but also parts of domestic cattle, dogs, and what may be protected species.

"When you buy a seal penis, you don't know what it is," grumbles David M. Lavigne of the University of Guelph in Ontario. He worries that the dried tissue and powders are so difficult to identify that Canada's legal trade in seal penises provides a good cover for selling parts of protected species of seals, sea lions, and their relatives.

Lavigne and his Guelph colleague Rick J. Smith worked with other Canadian scientists to identify 21 samples from shops in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and San Francisco, as well as in Bangkok and other Asian cities. The shopkeepers offered a variety of forms of the alleged aphrodisiac: sometimes a bone with preserved tissue attached, other times sliced cross-sections, even a convenience preparation already mixed into wine.

Tradition prescribes a wine-based tonic, says Lavigne. He recently found a recipe for "three-penis wine," which requires dog, deer, and seal parts. The Canadian research, in the December 1997 CONSERVATION BIOLOGY, did not address the efficacy of the potions.

After making many copies of the DNA from the samples, the researchers checked a region of the gene for cytochrome b against reference samples from two seal species or sequences from gene-bank data. Twelve specimens passed the test as legal seal products. Eleven of the samples matched harp seal DNA, and another was probably a hooded seal. …

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