Ducking the Hard Questions

It’s good to know that science is finally beginning to address larger questions of the meaning of life, rather than wasting time on trivial pursuits such as the origins of the universe. This epiphany came to me upon reading the following news release:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several species of ducks have evolved complicated genitals in what appears to be an “arms race” between the sexes, researchers reported on Tuesday.

And females may be coming out ahead, said the team of biologists at Yale University in Connecticut and the University of Sheffield in Britain.

Their findings not only open a window into a little-studied area of biology, but could help shed light on how evolution works to help both males and females control their own breeding, the researchers said.

Patricia Brennan of both Yale and Sheffield was trying to figure out why some species of birds have penises and some do not.

“Birds are the only group where it mostly has been lost — 97 percent of birds do not have phalluses at all,” Brennan said in a telephone interview.

“So if it is such a handy tool, why don’t they have them any more?” Brennan asked.

Instead, they mate using what biologists call a “cloacal kiss” — a brief touch of the single opening that birds of both sexes have for disposing of waste and that both eggs and sperm come out of.

Brennan noted that in many species, females choose a mate after he puts on an elaborate courtship display, and breeding pairs are often monogamous.

An exception is ducks — especially mallards. Although mallards pair off to mate, females are often raped by stray males.

Yet studies show that these rapes do not pay off for the males. “Even in a species where 40 percent of the copulations are forced copulations, the ducklings still are mostly sired by the mates,” Brennan said.

“That implies the females may have some kind of mechanism that allows them to keep control of the paternity.”

So Brennan’s team looked at a lot of duck bottoms.

What they found surprised them — corkscrew-shaped oviducts, with plenty of potential dead-ends.

“Interestingly, the male phallus is also a spiral, but it twists in the opposite, counterclockwise, direction,” said Yale ornithologist Richard Prum in a statement.

“So, the twists in the oviduct appear designed to exclude the opposing twists of the male phallus. It’s an exquisite anti-lock-and-key system.”

Brennan believes females evolved convoluted oviducts to foil the male rapists.

“You can envision an evolutionary scenario that, as the male phallus increases in size, the female creates more barriers. You get this evolutionary arms race,” Brennan said.

Only if the female is relaxed and cooperative can the male’s sperm get anywhere near the unfertilized eggs, the researchers suggest.

“What I think is really cool is this does speak a lot about the ability of the female to have these cryptic mechanisms of choice,” Brennan said.

And it may mean something for people. “We can expect that these types of antagonistic traits are probably widespread and are likely part of the reproductive interactions of all sorts of animals, including humans,” Brennan said.

See also here, where Dr. Brennan informs us: “When females cooperate during copulation, they don’t struggle.”

News you can use, to be sure.

Despite my fascination with corkscrew copulation, I must say that some questions still remain. First of all, what sort of passionate dedication leads a man to spend the better part of his life studying duck genitalia? This sounds like the sort of fellow who was ecstatic when Dolly the sheep was cloned, because he would have a date both Friday and Saturday night.

And it’s good to know that evolution is creating longer penises; perhaps, in a few billion years, my e-mail inbox will no longer be filled with spam which is, shall we say, long on promises and short on delivery. This is also exciting news for my new business venture; I anticipate you will soon hear an announcement for MallardWear™. As there are millions of ducks in the world, this may represent huge business opportunity.

And while evolution is enhancing the studliness of well-endowed drakes, it is simultaneously making the lady quackers pro-choice. Think of the long-term implications of this process: In a billion years or so, there may be no more demonstrators carrying placards which read, “Keep your clergy off my cloaca!” Who knows, evolution may bring about all sorts of favorable change along these lines. A billion years from now, we will almost certainly see the demise of Fox News; the end of global warming; the extinction of Republicans and conservatives; and surely there will be no more blood for oil. Male ducks will evolve training wheels to manage their formidable phalluses — or perhaps their penises will simply grow wings. “Fly United” will take on a whole new meaning.

And the thought of emptying our prisons of rapacious renegade ringneck rapists is certainly a hopeful dream — freeing up more prison cells for safe-quackers and other Mallardian malfeasants. We’ll all sleep better.

Ain’t evolution grand? How did she get so smart?

Perhaps she might also engineer the extinction of moronic scientists.

One can only hope.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

10 thoughts on “Ducking the Hard Questions

  1. “…First of all, what sort of passionate dedication leads a man to spend the better part of his life studying duck genitalia? ”

    …. um, Dr. Brennan, the ‘man’ in question, is obviously a woman if you notice, which tells much about the assumptions concerning power and achievement in male/female human relationships — in the workplace and the bedroom. God willing, our male sexual equipment will always remain somewhat smaller than our inflated male ego .

  2. Carlosio,

    ““Interestingly, the male phallus is also a spiral, but it twists in the opposite, counterclockwise, direction,” said Yale ornithologist Richard Prum in a statement.”

    Umm, Dr Richard Plum, is one of several males on the team. I will grant you that many females have better reading comprehension than some males, however.

  3. what sort of passionate dedication leads a man to spend the better part of his life studying duck genitalia?

    They can say, like Sir Edmund Hillary, “because I was there”.

  4. Its been several hours since a link from the NY Times brought me to your blog for the first time. While most days my comprehension may be o.k. Dr. Bob, my impetuosity (at least this day) might have been… off edge. Turns out the Times article is substantially different in emphasis from the news release you quoted and which I only just read. NY Times focused on Dr. Brennan’s role as the instigator and leader of this investigation.

    Now, what it all means for us to understand the structure and development of the Duck phallus is open to question. It’s probably not all that different to a study of the reproductive structures of flowers. To me it is just another fascinating proof of the wonder of God’s creation.

    So, I take back the ‘tone’ of my initial comment. Now that I’ve briefly looked around the site I find there’s much to think about whether or not I agree with specific ideas.

  5. “’Fly United’ will take on a whole new meaning.”

    What airline was it that used the advertising slogan, long ago, “… The only way to fly!” Could that have been prophetic for the ducks?

  6. Carloso,

    Thanks -sorry if my slapback was bit edgy as well. Glad to have you here.

    My main gripe with the article/press release wasn’t the research on repro-duck-shun per se, but rather what appears to me to be the rather ridiculous projection/anthropromorphizing-with-a-feminist-spin aspect of the researchers conclusion. Bottom line is no one knows why ducks have funny equipment — and why describe drake attempts at mating as “rape”? Anyone watch male dogs when a bitch is in heat? One could call that gang rape, I guess, as all the boys seem to want to hop on board. Silliness, not science.

  7. Hahaha.

    You beat me to the subject, but you did a much better job with it.

    However, your attempt to add humor to the grim and serious subject of the growing crisis in animal rape, no doubt due to globalisticalistic warmening, surely reveals your latent fascist tendencies.

    By the way, mine spirals counterclockwise.

    Bird Dog

  8. Now, Bird Dog, don’t be disrespecting my ho-ho’s. I’ve been educating my dog to always respect the ladies. It’s OK to call them “bitch’, I tell him — but never “Ho”

    And as for for your, er, spiral, well, that’s a little too much information

  9. For the non-endowed 97%, I can see it now: “Birds Without Peckers–The Movie.”

    I’m reminded of the old drinking song my father used to sing:

    “The cats on the Isle of Man have no tails.
    The cats on the Isle of Man have no tails,
    While all the other cats
    In England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales
    All have tails.

    “We call this rank injustice
    We call this rank injustice
    And to right it is our plan . . .”

Comments are closed.