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April 17, 2014 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Cave insect species discovered in which the female has a penis and the male has a vagina.
posted by Pater Aletheias (35 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Please tell me that somehow the name "Lola" will be worked into the scientific nomenclature.

"Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world..."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:09 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Seems to be splitting hairs on definitions. It could also be the first species discovered where the male has sperm larger than the female's eggs.
posted by GuyZero at 11:13 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


It could also be the first species discovered where the male has sperm larger than the female's eggs.

Where are you getting that, GuyZero? The linked article says:

[T]he female in these species of insect produces the largest gametes — egg cells. She simply also happens to sport a penis that she introduces into the male's vagina during copulation.
posted by agentofselection at 11:19 AM on April 17


> Seems to be splitting hairs on definitions. It could also be the first species discovered where the male has sperm larger than the female's eggs.

Seems not to say that. So, in this particular instance of sex-role reversal, the convention still applies: the female in these species of insect produces the largest gametes — egg cells.
posted by jfuller at 11:20 AM on April 17


My point is that declaring the sex with the largest gametes as the female is as arbitrary as saying that the sex with the part-that-sticks-out is the male. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that at some point you make an arbitrary decision about who is male and who is female.
posted by GuyZero at 11:25 AM on April 17 [10 favorites]


Guys, that's GuyZero's point; that you could say that this species is
a) the first one discovered in which the female has a penis and the male has a vagina, or
b) the first one discovered in which the male has larger gametes than the female, and either way it would make sense, so why fixate on the more "shocking" way of presenting the material? The definition seems arbitrary.

The really interesting thing to me is that the article seems to say that the female's gynosome collects sperm and returns it to the female, meaning that sperm is still being delivered to the egg from male to female, but that the "conduit apparatus" belongs to the female, and that the sperm is drawn in through it rather than expelled from it. Because of that, I think the definition makes sense, but I'm not sure the gynosome really qualifies as a penis any more than a, well, than a rectum is equivalent to a mouth, I guess.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:26 AM on April 17 [7 favorites]


Male has the baby. You're fired.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:27 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Not to be gross. Just the first equivalency to pop into my mind, so apologies if needed. You could probably also say, the difference between an air compressor and a vacuum.

Man, I wish I would have gone with that.
posted by Poppa Bear at 11:28 AM on April 17 [4 favorites]


Eggs are more than just the largest gamete; eggs are highly structured cells containing gradients of protein and messenger RNA that lay down the three-dimensional body axes of the embryo. It's not all that arbitrary which gamete is designated egg and which is designated sperm, is what I'm getting at.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 11:43 AM on April 17 [20 favorites]


"First female penis..." Feh. I have one, it's just very small.
posted by juniper at 11:47 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


"My point is that declaring the sex with the largest gametes as the female is as arbitrary as saying that the sex with the part-that-sticks-out is the male. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that at some point you make an arbitrary decision about who is male and who is female."

Female hyenas already have larger genitalia on average than male hyenas, and even use them aggressively.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:47 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Made of Star Stuff: I think the issue here isn't whether eggs are clearly different from sperm, just that in this case, the headline, "Female insect has penis?!" could be better written as, "Biologists have a specific definition of male/female that probably isn't what you think it is."
posted by Navelgazer at 11:48 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


I think the male/female distinction is made at the chromosomal level. The claim thatthe size of gametes determines sex is weird and I think that would only apply if gene sequencing hadn't occurred. Flies, like humans, have an XX pair in females and XY in males. There is a gene called SRY on the Y that when switched on during development of the embryo causes male genetalia to form. Something funny must be going on with SRY in these flies.
posted by drnick at 11:51 AM on April 17


Okay, I get your criticism GuyZero, but I still think there's something to the article. It could have been framed less sensationally as "Scientists discover insects in which the sex which develops oocytes also has an intromission organ," but that means the same thing. I think the interesting bit here that they're getting at is the evolution of a novel physiological structure, hence the comparison to insect wings. That is always new and exciting, and I'd like to know more about what the apparent developmental origin of the structure is. It would be cool if the article had that information, but perhaps no one involved has speculated publicly on it yet.
posted by agentofselection at 11:57 AM on April 17 [3 favorites]


You know what gets me is the fact that the female intromittent organ has spines, and yet, NO WHERE in the text do the authors suggest that the spines are adapted to prevent the male from poly-mating. But that's the go-to explanation when male insect intromittent organs are spiny. "Oh, check it out, this is traumatic insemination that makes it harder for the female to mate serially." The authors: numerous spines on the membrane internally anchor the female to the male. Wow, yeah, that's a completely reasonable speculative adaptive function!

Furthermore, pulling apart coupled specimens (N. curvata: n = 1) led to separation of the male abdomen from the thorax without breaking the genital coupling, showing that the female can hold the male tightly using the gynosome and paraprocts.

Oh my god, we are such horrible human beings.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 11:57 AM on April 17 [8 favorites]


"Biologists have a specific definition of male/female that probably isn't what you think it is."
Seriously, for example, when defined in biologically meaningful ways, the clitoris and penis really are just the same tissue developed under the influence of different hormones. What we generally think of as sexual differences, for the most part, really do have to be viewed through an anthropological rather then mechanical lens to be seen clearly.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:01 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


drnick: XY chromosomal sex determination is not universal. Birds, for example, along with butterflies, use ZW chromosomes -- females are the "heterogametic" ZW sex, while males are ZZ. There are also environmentally determined sex systems, where temperature is the main difference; some fishes (half-smooth tongue soles) have both a ZW sex determination system AND a temperature dependent system, so if the embryos are incubated at a higher temperature, there are females, males, and "pseudo-males" -- which are actually definitely males, they produce sperm, they have male morphology, but they have the ZW female chromosomes.

It's anybody's guess what these louses (not flies!) sex determination system is. Even within Paraneoptera, there's a bunch of different systems.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 12:01 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


drnick: These insects don't appear to be flies, but rather lice if I am reading correctly. Do you know if the SRY gene is conserved across insect orders? Serious question.
posted by agentofselection at 12:02 PM on April 17


Oops. Or what Made of Star Stuff said.
posted by agentofselection at 12:03 PM on April 17


Poppa Bear: "I'm not sure the gynosome really qualifies as a penis any more than a, well, than a rectum is equivalent to a mouth, I guess."

It's funny that you put it that way. In a certain sense, a mouth and an anus are equivalent; at least, in that the developmental structures that led to the human mouth led to the anus in others (and vice versa). The octopus is a good comparison. Both octopi and humans developed digestive tracts with an opening at either end; the first opening to develop in each comes from a location on the embryo called the blastopore. In the octopus, the blastopore becomes the mouth (making them protostomes, "mouth first"), and in humans (a type of deuterostome, "mouth second"), it becomes the anus, with the mouth developing later on the opposite side of the embryo.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:04 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]


""First female penis..." Feh. I have one, it's just very small."
Incidentally, the technical term for an insect penis is Aedeagus, which makes for some eruditely prurient google image searching.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:06 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Furthermore, pulling apart coupled specimens (N. curvata: n = 1) led to separation of the male abdomen from the thorax without breaking the genital coupling, showing that the female can hold the male tightly using the gynosome and paraprocts.

Geez, whatever happened to just throwing water on them!?
posted by Spatch at 12:07 PM on April 17 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of nuance in biological definitions is getting steamrolled because of its translation in lay journalism. The gamete discussion isn't as simplistic as the article suggests, but that's understandable--it's journalism, not the research paper. Gamete distinction isn't arbitrary, no matter how arbitrary it sounds in this article. The authors of the research paper itself are much more careful about language generally than the article's author (i.e. using "penis-like distal prominence" instead of "penis").

NO WHERE in the text do the authors suggest that the spines are adapted to prevent the male from poly-mating

The research paper goes into spiny genitalia and relative function. Authors also note that the spines might be there for "genital stimulation," so, maybe they're having a better time than we think when we hear that phrase?

The paper itself is really cool and has a lot of images. Worth checking out if you have journal access.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:11 PM on April 17


Geez, whatever happened to just throwing water on them!?

They were worried about shrinkage.
posted by yoink at 12:17 PM on April 17


Zoologger has a piece on this too.

Is it not actually inaccurate to call the female organ a penis because it results in "extramission", removing the male sex cells from the male, rather than the usual penile function of giving sex cells to the mating partner?
posted by Solomon at 12:45 PM on April 17


species discovered in which the female has a penis and the male has a vagina

Wait, are you saying that Kindergarten Cop lied to me?
posted by dhens at 12:51 PM on April 17


Well, honestly, there's no "penis" in insects anyway -- the analogous organ is usually called the aedeagus, or just intromittent organ (on preview, what Blasdelb said). But, Solomon is right, this isn't exactly an intromittent organ either, since it isn't putting something inside something else. The female seahorse's erectile ovipositor would be a better match for that (which they discuss in the paper).

late afternoon dreaming hotel, I disagree about the authors being more careful -- after the first qualified and careful "penis-like distal prominence" in the introductory paragraph, they're throwing "penis" around like it's nothing, and the pictures are clearly labeled "FEMALE PENIS." Look, you discover an animal that overturns centuries of staid heterosexist biological wisdom by doing the nasty all inside out, you don't couch that shit in careful, stuffy terms. They knew what they were doing, and I don't blame them one whit.

Also, I totally showed a student this paper when they came in for office hours. ... That's okay, right?
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 1:02 PM on April 17 [3 favorites]


40 TO 70 HOURS!?
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:03 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Ed Yong is having way too much fun with this.
posted by maudlin at 1:12 PM on April 17


"I think the male/female distinction is made at the chromosomal level. The claim thatthe size of gametes determines sex is weird and I think that would only apply if gene sequencing hadn't occurred. Flies, like humans, have an XX pair in females and XY in males. There is a gene called SRY on the Y that when switched on during development of the embryo causes male genetalia to form. Something funny must be going on with SRY in these flies."

"Contrary to popular belief, the presence or absence of certain sex organs isn't the determining factor when deciding which animal of a species is female and which is male. In fact, biologists don't use sex chromosomes either. They actually rely on the size of an animal's gametes — sperm in males and oocytes in females."
posted by klangklangston at 1:19 PM on April 17


Also, I totally showed a student this paper when they came in for office hours. ... That's okay, right?

Did you run it by the IRB?
posted by GuyZero at 1:27 PM on April 17


"The paper itself is really cool and has a lot of images. Worth checking out if you have journal access."
Incidentally, if you would like a copy of this paper but do not have access, please feel free to memail me with an email address I can send a PDF to and a promise not to distribute that PDF further; for the purposes of this academic discussion we are having of course.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:01 PM on April 17


Something funny must be going on with SRY in these flies.
Do you know if the SRY gene is conserved across insect orders? Serious question.

Flies don't have SRY as we know it because SRY is a eutherian innovation at the earliest (i.e., after marsupials split off -- they have an SRY gene as well but it doesn't look much like ours). SRY is part of a general class of transcription factors called the SOX genes with a really broad range of important functions, and those are conserved way out, even to fungi -- but transcription factors function by regulating other genes, and the genes they regulate are really variable even in related lineages.

Sex is highly polymorphic across the animal kingdom. As others have mentioned, birds and snakes have a ZW sex chromosome system, some insects have XO, some reptiles determine sex by temperature during a critical window (either instead of or in addition to being chromosomally determined), and some other insects are haplodiploid - as in, males are haploid and females are diploid (!!). The actual gametes that get produced at the end of the day are way, way more conserved than either the circuits that regulate their production or the organs that are involved in trafficking them, which is why biologists use gametes to determine the sexes instead of chromosomes.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:04 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Your Penis Is Getting in the Way of My Science - io9 takes issue with reporting of this story.
posted by Mezentian at 10:14 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


ocherdraco: "In the octopus, the blastopore becomes the mouth (making them protostomes, "mouth first"), and in humans (a type of deuterostome, "mouth second"), it becomes the anus, with the mouth developing later on the opposite side of the embryo."

Finally a scientific explanation for people who appear to be talking out of their ass!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:01 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]


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