Alexander Graham Bell’s Six-Nippled Sheep
“A progeny of nineteen is no uncommon event in a pig’s family. Even dogs have as many as six at a birth, while twin lambs are rare, and quadruples unheard of…. Why could not the sheep do so too?” And so began Alexander Graham Bell’s lifetime experiment to determine whether he could breed sheep with many nipples, that would thus bear many offspring, and keep them all in milk without difficulty.

 


Bell and his family loved animals. They kept a bobcat or two on their estate, as well as a spoiled flock of sheep that resided in “Sheepville”, complete with street signs. Graham Bell’s sheep breeding was both a gentleman’s hobby, and a serious scientific endeavour. Thirteen years later, he reported to the National Academy of Sciences  that he had successfully bred a flock with four functional mammae yielding milk (compared to the usual two), and has noted lambs with five and six nipples in his flock, including one ewe with four nipples on one side of the body and two on the other “foreshadowing the possibility of an eight-nippled variety.” However, his sheep have increased in nipple number only; they are not more likely to have more offspring. The extra nipples were wasted.

 

Upon Bell’s death, The University of New Hampshire took on the flock, and continued with the experiments and were eventually passed on to the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry who concluded that “the multi-nipple character has no practical value in sheep production,”. Six-nippled sheep, even the idea of six-nippled sheep, fell into obscurity.

 

 

 

Graham Bell loved sheep; he kept them close to his house, in “Sheepville,” and fed them by hand.

 

That is, until now. George Davis, Principal Agricultural Research Scientist in New Zealand, is being asked by farmers who’ve been keeping breeds like Finn and East Friesian that usually have two lambs, and often three, to come up with ewes that have more than two functional nipples. Triplets don’t do well with a two-nippled mother; there isn’t enough milk to go around. More nipples would greatly help the situation. Davis is going to try to give it to them. He started the breeding work in 2006 and like Bell, Davis is particularly interested in six-nippled sheep. It turns out that to consistently get four functional mammaries, six-nippled sheep give the breeding program a real “kickstart”.  If Bell’s experimental results are any indication, the program will be a resounding success, and there is every reason to believe that multi-nippled sheep will become a fixture on the pastures of the future.

 

 

Bell did indeed give birth to an idea of merit. It just had to wait for necessity to come along to nurture it.

 


 

George Davis, agricultural researcher in New Zealand, is right now engaged in a six-nippled sheep breeding program, which includes the ewe on display here.

 

 
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