Photo of the day

From an In Focus “Animals in the News” series.  Lots and lots of great ones here.  My favorite:

Horses near an abandoned Israeli tank in a field along the border between Syria and Israel, in the Golan Heights, on March 8, 2013.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

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Funding for duck penises

As you may know, I’ve long been intrigued by the evolutionary wonder that is the duck penis (and the likewise co-evolved duck female reproductive tract).  One of those odd little factoids I like to share is that humans and ducks are among the very rare number of species that have non-consensual sex, i.e., rape.  So, how nice to see Michael Tomasky get on the duck penis train:

Some conservatives got some attention last week by alleging that the federal government is funding research into duck penises, by way of trying to demonstrate that many taxpayer dollars are wasted and that the sequester is therefore great because it might stop us from funding the study of duck penises.

PolitiFact got curious enough to look into it and decided to give it a “mostly true”–an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale named Richard Prum did indeed snare nearly $400,000 from the National Science Foundtion to study duck mating.

But if you read the item, I think you’ll conclude with me that the whole matter is rather fascinating and just self-evidently deserving of human study:

Here, in Prum’s words, is what he studied and learned:
“Most birds don’t have a penis. Ducks do. They still have it from the reptilian ancestor that they shared with mammals,” he said.

The duck’s penis is stored inside the body, and when it becomes erect, the process of insemination is “explosive,” Prum said. The duck’s penis becomes erect within a third of a second, at the same time it enters the female duck’s body. Ejaculation is immediate, and then the penis starts to regress. The length of the duck penis, as mentioned in the tweets, grows to 8 or 9 inches during the summer mating season. In winter, it shrinks to less than an inch.

In duck ponds, Prum said, a lot of forced copulation occurs. Forced copulation is what it sounds like — rape in nature. Even gang rape happens among ducks. And Prum found that while 40 to 50 percent of duck sex happens by forced copulation, only 2 to 4 percent of inseminations result from it (meaning times the female duck ends up with a fertilized egg).

“The question is why does that happen? How does a female prevent fertilization by forced copulation?” he said. “The answer has to do with taking advantage of what males have evolved — this corkscrew shaped penis.”

Prum said the duck penis is a corkscrew whose direction runs counterclockwise. Female ducks, he said, have evolved a complex vagina also shaped like a corkscrew — but a clockwise one.

“This is literally an anti-screw anatomy,” he said.

When females choose their own partners — in other words, solicit copulation — the muscles in the vagina are dilated and expanded. So the anti-screw effect is negated.
“The females are enormously, amazingly successful at preventing fertilization by forced copulation,” he said.

So it turns out that Todd Akin was right, but only about ducks, not actual human women.

Now, it may be debatable whether this is the best use of science funding, but other than the laugh factor of saying “duck penis” this seems just as reasonable and mainstream as plenty of other science funding into animal behavior.  Anyway, mostly I find this a fascinating bit of zoology that more people should know about.

The Republicans conservative problem

Nice piece from Andy Kohut of Pew in the Post on Sunday about how the far right is driving the Republican party off a cliff:

In my decades of polling, I recall only one moment when a party had been driven as far from the center as the Republican Party has been today.

The outsize influence of hard-line elements in the party base is doing to the GOP what supporters of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern did to the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s — radicalizing its image and standing in the way of its revitalization.

In those years, the Democratic Party became labeled, to its detriment, as the party of “acid, abortion and amnesty.” With the Democrats’ values far to the left of the silent majority, McGovern lost in a landslideto Richard Nixon in 1972.

While there are no catchy phrases for the Republicans of 2013, their image problems are readily apparent in national polls. The GOP has come to be seen as the more extreme party, the side unwilling to compromise or negotiate seriously to tackle the economic turmoil that challenges the nation.

I love that “come to be seen as” hedge.  The Republican party has come to be seen this way because that’s a pretty accurate reflection of reality.  Continuing:

The Republican Party’s ratings now stand at a 20-year low, with just 33 percent of the public holding a favorable view of the party and 58 percent judging it unfavorably, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Although the Democrats are better regarded (47 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable), the GOP’s problems are its own, not a mirror image of renewed Democratic strength…

But while members of the Republican and Democratic parties have become more conservative and liberal, respectively, a bloc of doctrinaire, across-the-board conservatives has become a dominant force on the right. Indeed, their resolve and ultra-conservatism have protected Republican lawmakers from the broader voter backlash that is so apparent in opinion polls.

The party’s base is increasingly dominated by a highly energized bloc of voters with extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues: the size and role of government, foreign policy, social issues, and moral concerns. They stand with the tea party on taxes and spending and with Christian conservatives on key social questions, such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage…

According to our polling, three factors stand out in the emergence of the GOP’s staunch conservative bloc: ideological resistance to President Obama’s policies, discomfort with the changing face of America and the influence of conservative media.

Lots of interesting stuff in there.  And, to beat a dead and decaying horse… this is not a “both sides” issue.  Quite simply the base of the Republican Party has moved dramatically and profoundly to the right in a way not at all seen on the left by Democrats.

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