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.
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.
posted by Blasdelb (33 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It just occurred to me that I should note that explosive eversion is a thing that duck penises are supposed to do and not at all gore. I think its beautiful but your taste may vary, its in a non-autoplaying video.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:34 PM on May 3, 2013

I don't think I'm ever again going to be able to enjoy a Carl Barks comic without this new information rattling around in the back of my head, THANKS.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:39 PM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

posted by Kabanos at 3:01 PM on May 3, 2013

Previouslier previously in 2007. (Apparently this is Metafilter's thing)
posted by Llama-Lime at 3:05 PM on May 3, 2013

It seems its duck penises all the way down.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:06 PM on May 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

Now what about them Australian ducks.....?
posted by Kabanos at 3:09 PM on May 3, 2013

He mentions Geckskin™ as an example of something invented as a result of what we've learned about geckos.

So imagine what useful object will be invented in the future, based on the shape of a duck penis.
posted by RobotHero at 3:22 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cool science teacher in 3, 2, 1 ....

"Genitalia, dear readers, are where the rubber meets the road, evolutionarily."
posted by The Ted at 3:26 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

So that's why Donald never wore pants!
posted by Splunge at 3:26 PM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Genitalia, dear readers, are where the rubber meets the road, evolutionarily."

Or where the rubber meets the rod if you're playing it safe.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:35 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll be very impressed if they make this duck is anatomically correct.
posted by homunculus at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2013

....Okay, is there some secret duckfuckers section of Metafilter that no one told me about?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:42 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

So *that's* why Duck Dynasty is so popular...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:55 PM on May 3, 2013

Oh come on. Why, the very first sentence of that Brennan & Prum abstract has the word "evolution" in it. Just how dumb do you think we are over here?
posted by sneebler at 4:07 PM on May 3, 2013

Do ducks even know how to tell time with a clock?
posted by srboisvert at 4:19 PM on May 3, 2013

I know they're embedded in the PI's Slate piece, which is incredible in and of itself, but I thought it'd be nice to directly link to the explosively duck penis videos.

Those vids should make anyone stop, gape a bit, and just ask "why," which in an ideal world would be enough to justify funding an investigation. As Brennan eloquently states in her article, demanding basic science research have some immediate practical application not only misses the point, but undermines the basic foundation of scientific exploration that makes later discovery possible.

To pick a random example that in no way panders to blasdelb, imagine if Esther Lederberg had not had the funding to do the work that led to the discovery of the lambda phage. That investigation, so esoteric at the time, has spawned enough biological research (applied and otherwise) to make the question of whatever initial funding it received to be the mootest of points.

I've had more than a few conversations about this topic and there's a trope that gets brought up all the time: these researchers are like Columbus sailing West. That's bullshit, because Columbus' expedition was clearly an applied research experiment, albeit a high-risk one, aimed at achieving a defined material goal. Also, Columbus was a terrible person, but I digress. The kind of research Brennan and other bench scientists are doing is more like the first time some indigenous Mexican decided to see if they could make some random grass be more productive. No one could have known at the time, or even for generations, whether that effort would pay out, but it did in ways no one at the time could even begin to understand.

Basic science research may seem weird and out there and absurd, but that's the point; these kind of studies blaze the way for future investigations. The real absurdity comes from short-sighted people who think revolutionary technologies and ideas spring wholly formed from the heads of iconoclastic, yet acceptably pragmatic, scientists. The truth is that scientific advancement requires not only the patience to basically watch paint dry and record the minute changes in hue over time, but the curiosity and determination to figure out why that happens. Maybe that pondering will lead to revolutionary changes in a half dozen scientific fields, or maybe it will just be navel-gazing. Stifling that drive though, the desire to ask the question of why things happen, not only holds back any possible applications it may lead to down the road, but impinges on the kind of wondrous inquisitiveness and hope that represents the best part of humanity.

None of this changes the fact that mallards are a bunch of creepy rapists.
posted by Panjandrum at 4:35 PM on May 3, 2013 [29 favorites]

This is the best stunt post ever.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:03 PM on May 3, 2013

Duh! If we knew the answer already, we wouldn't have to ask the goddam question.

This isn't rocket science, you know.
posted by mule98J at 5:49 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about duck genitals off and on since seeing the video, and WTF evolution indeed. That is such a fucking monstrosity of a dick; of course it must be researched. Because, shit.
posted by angrycat at 5:49 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

It seems its duck penises all the way down.

We should change the name of the New Post form to the duck dick deck.
posted by yoink at 6:00 PM on May 3, 2013

And the point of all of this: answering scientific question X "may have significant applied uses in the future, but we must conduct the basic research first."
posted by ChuraChura at 6:03 PM on May 3, 2013

I in fact cite this researcher's work in my classes on sexuality, on the body, and on gender regularly. The videos certainly catch students' attention, and get them thinking.

The idea that publicly-funded science should be in the public interest is nothing new at all, despite the current hype on the right. The question is: what is the public interest? Congressional critics want to define it very narrowly--basically in terms of health and defense--and then define those narrowly. Thus, for example, one of the research projects that's being held up for mockery relates to gender transition and the voice--because improving medical therapy options for trans* people is not a goal these critics favor. Funding for studies on sexuality have been under the knife of conservative politicians for a long time. Studies concluding that global climate change will have a serious impact on human quality of life are notoriously discounted on the right.

Often scientists themselves think that the origin of the problem is a lack of public understanding of the value and methods of basic science (and this seems to be the position of this researcher in her piece). But that is not the case: the decrease in appreciation of scientific study outside of the realm of industrial profit that has occurred since the heyday of the American space program in the 1970s has taken place solely on the right. And it has been most prominent among conservative college-educated individuals, who have adopted a position that since many studies lead to results and regulations they oppose, non-industrial science as a whole should be delegitimated.

So: this is not just a kerfuffle about duck penises, but part of an organized political movement that wants not just to cut "fluff" science in lean times, but unfund all scientific research except that directly tied to immediate corporate profit.
posted by DrMew at 6:05 PM on May 3, 2013 [10 favorites]

This is good, but it won't convince anyone.

Those who will be convinced of the importance of basic science are already convinced of it. It's one of those blatantly obvious things, like not polluting the water we drink, or that bombing people makes them vengeful. Those who are not capable of getting the point won't get it because of this article; they pretty much think of sex as dirty and science as witchcraft anyway.

This is a clear and obvious example of the flaw in academic liberalism - these perverse and useless attempts at engagement. No. Stop it. If they don't get it, the proper response is not to earnestly explain it over again in ever-smaller words. The proper response is to remember that you are smarter than they are, find their weaknesses, exploit them, disempower them, and disassemble their ability to harm you.

It's time to turn away from duck penises for a bit, and put that rhetorical and investigative skill to the service of opposing the political movement of conservatism, in all of its manifestations. Let this latest round of bullshit, the "sequester", be the straw that breaks the back of liberal forbearance. When admitting to being a political conservative (social and/or fiscal) is seen as something akin to admitting to being a lying, bigoted, financially irresponsible and socially backward thief, then it is time to go back to doing science again. Want to help science? Push that research programme forward.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:03 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have more thoughts on ducks since the last duck rape/penis thread, which was what, a week or two ago?

Last weekend, my mom came to visit and I took her down to the arboretum to see the baby ducks. This was where we ran into some weird dude who overheard my mom across the river asking questions about the arboretum and started answering them. He then proceeded to tell us that the reason why we saw duck moms with about 12 or more babies apiece was that the male ducks were raping the female ducks IN THE WATER and DROWNING THEM. Apparently he goes around finding duck corpses and like a coroner, knows the signs of death by duck raping.

"I have a video on my phone. Want to see?" he said. I said no. He whipped out his phone and SHOWED US ANYWAY.

I asked, "Do you work here?" No. No, he does not. He is just an interested bystander who goes around looking for raped duck corpses floating in the water. He also periodically scoops up abandoned ducks and/or duck babies and drives them out to Sacramento or Jackson ("I like those people better") to donate them to duck rescue groups.

"See all those babies? They're lucky the other moms have taken them on. Most of them are gonna die anyway," he said.

I know I'm a crazy person magnet, but this one will always have a ...special... place in the roster of weird, scary people who followed me around and wouldn't stop telling me disturbing things.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:09 PM on May 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

I feel that at some level, basic research is like art: doing it is part of what makes us human, and often we are better humans because of it. The fact that there is an occasionally huge ROI in the form of applied technology is nice too, of course, and is a fine justification for businesses or governments to devote 0.1% of their budget to it; but it's not the driving motivation of yer typical researcher.

Of course, the same people who want to defund science usually also want to defund art, so this isn't a very politically useful viewpoint…
posted by hattifattener at 7:32 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

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.

Why only waterfowl?

I think jenfullmoon gives us the answer:
male ducks were raping the female ducks IN THE WATER and DROWNING THEM.
Birds don't have hands to grab potential victims, but water gives waterfowl the ability to hold the female under until she submits-- whether deliberately or from asphyxiation.

Probably takes more than one male, each must have his turn, and I'd guess deaths mainly result from too many holding her under for too long.

Bet dolphins do it the same way.
posted by jamjam at 8:09 PM on May 3, 2013

I raise ducks. A couple years ago I had a really nice drake. He had six girlfriends. The spring they came of age, the pond was boiling with duck sex from dawn to dusk. I should probably have kept an additional drake, because poor Badger was breeding so much that his penis got too swollen to retract. He would waddle back to the pen at night with this pink worm dangling under his tail. That's not good - worms are a duck delicacy, and if a bird gets hold of a big nightcrawler, the whole flock will try to grab it from her. If a bird got the wrong idea about Badger's dick, it could be awful. Moreover, it's an organ that needs to be kept moist. If the end gets dry, it could become necrotic. During the day he'd be fine swimming on the pond, with his dick either in the water or in another duck. But at night they're in the pen, and as outlined above, any number of catastrophes could befall a prolapsed phallus. So for about six weeks, I'd go out to the duck pen at dusk to close them in for the night, catch Badger, and manually stuff his dick back into his body. I became quite adept at it, as well - I could sweep him up with one hand, hold him like a baby cradled in one arm, use the index and middle finger of my other hand to open his vent, and push his weird little curly duck penis back inside with my thumb. It's amazing what can become routine.

As the season progressed and the initial hormonal frenzy died down, Badger's penis had a chance to recover and no longer presented a problem. I did retire him however, because despite being really awfully nice for his breed, he was undersized (apart from his genitalia) and passed that trait along to offspring. His successors are larger, and I am pleased to say I have never had to personally interact with their penises. I can only imagine that, if they could be aware of that fact, they'd be as relieved as I am.

That's my personal duck dick story, thanks Metafilter, for being the place I can share it.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:24 PM on May 3, 2013 [34 favorites]

Oh, and duck rape as a breeding strategy isn't typical in a domestic flock, I don't think, where all the flock individuals are like a big family but have their own little cliques. Mostly the girls chase the boys, bobbing their heads and trying to get the drakes' attention. I had one drake who would chase down unwilling girls. They'd run screaming along the shore, and meanwhile he had his own groupies, but he just wanted the unwilling girl. He was delicious.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:30 PM on May 3, 2013 [10 favorites]

I've been on MetaFilter for a long time but somehow never read this about ducks and their genitalia's impressive ability to evolve. Especially duck vaginas evolving in response to rape.

I am frankly disappointed in my species and gender and our inability to get our act together and evolve our genitalia in a similar manner. Better yet we should take it a few steps further and evolve ourselves something selectively sharp and unfriendly down there so that in cases of rape we achieve more than thwarting effective semen delivery. Smartest mammals on the planet and our genital evolution can't even keep up with ducks? This is just really disappointing. Clearly more study is warranted.
posted by onlyconnect at 10:14 PM on May 3, 2013

I really, genuinely hate this mindset; the idea that said item, distilled to its simplest description, is a waste of money. I remember as a kid, my dad who was dem by tradition but likely a proto tea partier 30 years ago. He had a flyer someone, a friend or a coworker gave him, that was about "where your tax dollars go." I remember one he thought was particularly egregious was $X to study cow farts. And I remember thinking "but isn't that a greenhouse gas?" I can't remember how old I was, but we were learning about "the greenhouse effect" and global warming.

Since then, I've seen this kind of narrow minded propaganda and am amazed. I remember hearing people upset because "the government was spending money on pig shit." And no further thought was put into why... It amazes me the people that willfully fail to ask "hang on, what's the full story here?" with the advent of the internet it's that much worse. Most of the time it takes all of a minute to Google and at least get a summary of the minutia of what the issue at hand is. But if it plays into someone's preconceived notions, they never question, never ask what the rest of the story is. And that bothers me something fierce. I desperately wish schools had a critical thinking and logic class in high school rather than hoping they'd just pick it up somewhere along the way.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 2:46 AM on May 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

My ol' gal is a good ol' pal,
And she walks just like a waterfowl,
'Cause I've got them deep river blues.
When I die you can bury me
'N all the fishes'll swim to the sea...
'Cause I got them deep river blues
(Doc Watson)

. . . . . . . . . .

My ol' gal lives in North Carolina,
She's a sweet li'l gal with a simple vagina...
'N I always get them deep river blues...
When I die please bury me quick
'N don't let 'em see my left-handed dick
'N they won't get them deep river blues
(Donald Duck)
posted by mule98J at 11:59 AM on May 4, 2013

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