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.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Funding for duck penises

  1. Mike from Canada says:

    You never know what research project is going to result in civilization changing knowledge. Or simply make some peoples lives better.

    This Republican dog and pony show is nothing new, they’ve been doing this a long time, and unsurprisingly they have twisted and ignored the facts to make research projects look worse so they could score political points.

    If they really wanted to make a point Republicans would tell Americans that a huge amount of pharmaceutical drug research is paid for by American taxpayers, yet Americans pay the highest prices in the world for drugs they helped pay to create. So high that many Americans can’t afford to buy them.

    I don’t see Republicans telling that truth to the American people.

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