Getting Science Right

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Getting Science Right: All Astew About Duck Gonads

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Frivolous spending or important basic science?

ducksScientific research on the evolution of genitalia is not news (though each discovery has made for some interesting reading). But recently, Fox News and others took aim at the “discovery” that U.S. government money was spent to fund these experiments! And in the classic form of “why do we support the X I don’t like, so can’t have the Y I do like” argument, researcher Patricia Brennan’s long-term studies on duck genitals came under fire.

Why was her work criticized?
The United States is wrangling with reconciling its national debt with spending and budget plans, and recently became subject to automatic government spending cuts, known as the “sequester.” These cuts affected just about every federal program, from defense to environmental monitoring to science and medical researching funding—including studies on duck gonads. Brennan has pointed out that the same media outlets that overall, reported her findings accurately, just as inaccurately equated her studies with wasteful government spending.

What’s being left out?
First, Brennan’s work has been funded since 2005 (when Republican George W. Bush was President), and this work is nothing new. Second, government budgets are complicated creatures—taking 2% from one program would not equal giving 2% to another program. Third, funding for the National Science Foundation (which funds Brennan’s work at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst) costs about $20 per American. Funding the military, meanwhile, costs $2,000 for every American. And last but not least, basic science funding, while easily criticized during hard times, is crucial for any country to succeed. It is these fundamental advances in understanding how cells, molecules, and animals interact with each other that create tomorrow’s medicines, devices, infrastructure, and even concepts for interacting on social levels.

Which brings us back to duck penises
Of course. Male and female genitals have adapted to the practice of forced copulation by males. A male’s corkscrew penis makes it more difficult for females to fend him off, but her own genitals provide a series of anatomical features that impede insemination. Recently, Brennan found that the presence of other males has created increased sexual conflicts, which in turn resulted in the evolution of the duck’s peculiar genitalia. This can tell us the evolutionary roots of sexual conflict, and illustrates the diversity of sexual behavior. After all, without genitals, none of us would be here.

Sources:, National Geographic


Brennan, P., Clark, C., & Prum, R. (2009). Explosive eversion and functional morphology of the duck penis supports sexual conflict in waterfowl genitalia Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1686), 1309-1314 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2139

duck genitals, duck sexuality

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