Why I Study Duck Genitalia
May 3, 2013 2:28 PM Subscribe
In the past few days, the Internet has been filled with commentary on whether the National Science Foundation should have paid for my study on duck genitalia, and 88.7 percent of respondents to a Fox news online poll agreed that studying duck genitalia is wasteful government spending. The commentary supporting and decrying the study continues to grow. As the lead investigator in this research, I would like to weigh in on the controversy and offer some insights into the process of research funding by the NSF.
Open access research published from this work:
Come for the passionate defense of basic science, stay for the explosive eversion of a duck penis.
Open access research published from this work:
The limits of sexual conflict in the narrow sense: new insights from waterfowl biology
PLR Brennan & RO Prum
Sexual conflict occurs when the evolutionary interests of the sexes differ and it broadly applies to decisions over mating, fertilization and parental investment. Recently, a narrower view of sexual conflict has emerged in which direct selection on females to avoid male-imposed costs during mating is considered the distinguishing feature of conflict, while indirect selection is considered negligible. In this view, intersexual selection via sensory bias is seen as the most relevant mechanism by which male traits that harm females evolve, with antagonistic coevolution between female preferences and male manipulation following. Under this narrower framework, female preference and resistance have been synonymized because both result in a mating bias, and similarly male display and coercion are not distinguished. Our recent work on genital evolution in waterfowl has highlighted problems with this approach. In waterfowl, preference and resistance are distinct components of female phenotype, and display and coercion are independent male strategies. Female preference for male displays result in mate choice, while forced copulations by unpreferred males result in resistance to prevent these males from achieving matings and fertilizations. Genital elaborations in female waterfowl appear to function in reinforcing female preference to maintain the indirect benefits of choice rather than to reduce the direct costs of coercive mating. We propose a return to a broader view of conflict where indirect selection and intrasexual selection are considered important in the evolution of conflict.
Coevolution of Male and Female Genital Morphology in Waterfowl
PLR Brennan, RO Prum, KG McCracken, MD Sorenson, RE Wilson & TR Birkhead
Most birds have simple genitalia; males lack external genitalia and females have simple vaginas. However, male waterfowl have a phallus whose length (1.5–>40 cm) and morphological elaborations vary among species and are positively correlated with the frequency of forced extra-pair copulations among waterfowl species. Here we report morphological complexity in female genital morphology in waterfowl and describe variation vaginal morphology that is unprecedented in birds. This variation comprises two anatomical novelties: (i) dead end sacs, and (ii) clockwise coils. These vaginal structures appear to function to exclude the intromission of the counter-clockwise spiralling male phallus without female cooperation. A phylogenetically controlled comparative analysis of 16 waterfowl species shows that the degree of vaginal elaboration is positively correlated with phallus length, demonstrating that female morphological complexity has co-evolved with male phallus length. Intersexual selection is most likely responsible for the observed coevolution, although identifying the specific mechanism is difficult. Our results suggest that females have evolved a cryptic anatomical mechanism of choice in response to forced extra-pair copulations.
Explosive eversion and functional morphology of the duck penis supports sexual conflict in waterfowl genitalia
PLR Brennan, CJ Clark & RO Prum
Coevolution of male and female genitalia in waterfowl has been hypothesized to occur through sexual conflict. This hypothesis raises questions about the functional morphology of the waterfowl penis and the mechanics of copulation in waterfowl, which are poorly understood. We used high-speed video of phallus eversion and histology to describe for the first time the functional morphology of the avian penis. Eversion of the 20 cm muscovy duck penis is explosive, taking an average of 0.36 s, and achieving a maximum velocity of 1.6 m s−1. The collagen matrix of the penis is very thin and not arranged in an axial-orthogonal array, resulting in a penis that is flexible when erect. To test the hypothesis that female genital novelties make intromission difficult during forced copulations, we investigated penile eversion into glass tubes that presented different mechanical challenges to eversion. Eversion occurred successfully in a straight tube and a counterclockwise spiral tube that matched the chirality of the waterfowl penis, but eversion was significantly less successful into glass tubes with a clockwise spiral or a 135° bend, which mimicked female vaginal geometry. Our results support the hypothesis that duck vaginal complexity functions to exclude the penis during forced copulations, and coevolved with the waterfowl penis via antagonistic sexual conflict.
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