Yay Science

03.25.13

Yes, We Should Study Duck Penises

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.

More broadly, three points. One, I had no idea cute little ducks were such violent (ahem) pricks. I'll never be able to look at them the same way. Two, this is obviousy knowledge the human race needs; we have these species of animals around us, and it's important to know how they live and survive, a knowledge that is important not for any application but simply for its own sake, and if you don't agree with this assertion, we live on different planets. The philistinism on display here--hey, duck penises, we can make fun of that--is depressing.

And three, the government has a clearly legitimate role to play in supporting such research. The idea that we shouldn't be funding duck mating is a total canard. Onward, Professor Prum!