Scary Sex Organs: Ducks & Turtles

1 05 2007

Most people have absolutely no idea how incredibly strange the sexual equipment (and behavior) of other species are. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic yourself, I heartily recommend Olivia Judson’s book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation or (for a more serious, but easily-accessible book) Adrian Forsyth’s A Natural History of Sex. Indeed, sexual selection is a topic I don’t think is considered often enough or taken seriously enough; could it be possible to cause evolution of certain structures faster through sexual selection than from adaptations to the environment? I think so.

Anyway, Darren has posted a must-read piece of the monstrous sex organs of male turtles, and if the Galapagos tortoises at the Philadelphia Zoo are any judge, some of the shelled-reptiles may have the appetite to match. When I first visited the zoo in the summer of 2006, at least one male was trying desperately to mate with an uncooperative female (making loud “huuuuuh!” noises all the while) that made many a nuclear family turn immature eyes away from the exhibit. In keeping with this theme I also happened across a LiveScience article about the absolutely bizarre male & female sex organs of some ducks.

Many male ducks of various species are unabashed rapists, going after females alone or in groups in order to achieve what is mildly referred to as “forced copulation”. In order to help facilitate this, many males have developed truly bizarre mating apparatus, often barbed, with a brush on the tip, or simply enormous (as is the case with the well-known Argentine Lake Duck). The females, of course, are no slouches when it comes to sexual innovation either, their sex organs often described as labyrinthine with lots of dead-ends or pockets, increasing the likelihood that during forced copulation the male will literally miss his mark. When the female is not struggling, however, the male would still need a bizarre member to successfully inseminate the female, so sexual innovations (while driven by some uncouth behavior on the part of some males) are necessary for all ducks.

What I’m wondering is how females develop such odd sex organs. I can understand that males with longer parts or ones that can remove past males sperm would be more successful and leave more offspring, but what sort of variation led to the odd parts of females and has allowed them to compete measure-for-measure with the males? Obviously it’s not something the female ducks can control themselves (i.e. “I don’t like those randy buggers so I’m going to evolve a more complex sex organ so only the good males will be the fathers of my offspring”), Obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about when I originally posted because females of many species can control which male ends up fertilizing them (thanks Neil). What I’m wondering is how selecting one males sperm over another leads to such complex organs, how does such an ability evolve and keep changing to keep up with males? Somehow I get the feeling that I’ll be kept up late many nights, contemplating duck sex until I can figure this one out.

Update the 1st; Apparently the paper, “Coevolution of Male and Female Genital Morphology in Waterfowl” is available on PLoS ONE, so all interested parties should check it out. I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet (I’ll write a new post when I do) but if you’re looking for more on the topic Neil has a great analysis of the paper and Bora (as always) is the link-master to seemingly everyone who wrote about it. I know I should be studying for my biology finals tomorrow, but it’s hard to concentrate when I have so many unanaswered questions about duck sex…

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14 responses

1 05 2007
Sarda Sahney

Animals are so funny and weird, but I suppose that from a natural perspective, we are just plain boring! Also check out the panda porn and sea lion voyeurs at http://secretsexlives.blogspot.com.

1 05 2007
Phil

Good Lord! You learn something new everyday. I’ll never look at turtles the same way again.

1 05 2007
neil

I’m interested by your final comment since it seems to reflect a common perception about the evolution of sexual behavior and primary and secondary sexual characters (morphology) going back to Darwin at least. That is, a horde of competing males extending their intromittant organs ever further in a bid toward reproductive maximization, while females are left to (literally) bear the brunt of this arms race.

Of course, just as there is strong selective pressure for males to attempt to maximize gamete output, there is strong selective pressure for females to ensure that their gametes are fertilized by ‘suitable’ mates. Ergo, it’s no more ‘difficult’ for females to evolve elaborate sex organs than males.

Furthermore female animals can and do make decisions about whom they mate with (even though they can’t ‘decide’ to evolve more elaborate sex organs). Perhaps most astonishingly, there is at least some evidence that even after mating females can exert control over whether or which male gametes go on to fertilize their eggs (so-called ‘Cryptic Female Choice’).

There are, of course, many other good reasons to contemplate duck sex….although when I watch Mallards in the park do it, and the drake forces the hen’s head underwater for his coup-de-grace, I always feel dirty. And so does the hen apparently as she vigorously washes the shame away…

2 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comments everyone, and thanks for your thoughts on the topic Neil. I don’t doubt that females are just as inventive when it comes to sex, but what I was suggesting is that I’d be more interested in learning how female ducks develop their labyrinthine sex organs. I can understand how male ducks have their phalluses adapted over time through competition, but how a female duck chooses sperm from one mate over another (and how such sperm selection leads to more complex sex organs) is something that I find a bit more enigmatic. That’s essentially what I was trying to get out, how does selecting sperm from one male over another lead to more complex sex organs to allow such gamete selection to take place? There’s no doubt that the such selection is occurring, but there’s obviously much more to the story than we now understand.

3 05 2007
Neil

Hi Brian,
Looks like we aren’t the only ones puzzling over these questions, check out the comments to the PLoS paper if you haven’t already.

After reading the PLoS paper (which I admittedly hadn’t done when I left my first comment) what’s most interesting to me is that the authors propose that the elaborate organs of the male may not be driven primarily by competition between males, but by rather in response to the vaginal bobs and weaves of the females! As near as I can tell, they don’t provide any direct evidence for this hypothesis and it’s difficult to imagine how they could but it’s intriguing nevertheless.

I’ve got my take over on microecos I’d love to get your response.

3 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment and the links Neil; I hadn’t known an actual paper was available as yet, so I will certainly check it out (as well as your analysis).

3 05 2007
Laelaps

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25 06 2008
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17 07 2008
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29 07 2008
shashank

Thanks for the comments everyone, and thanks for your thoughts on the topic Neil. I don’t doubt that females are just as inventive when it comes to sex, but what I was suggesting is that I’d be more interested in learning how female ducks develop their labyrinthine sex organs. I can understand how male ducks have their phalluses adapted over time through competition, but how a female duck chooses sperm from one mate over another (and how such sperm selection leads to more complex sex organs) is something that I find a bit more enigmatic. That’s essentially what I was trying to get out, how does selecting sperm from one male over another lead to more complex sex organs to allow such gamete selection to take place? There’s no doubt that the such selection is occurring, but there’s obviously much more to the story than we now understand.

5 05 2009
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28 11 2009
Adel Yousef

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13 12 2009
Denver

OK I just laughed so hard that I cried ….. for about 15 minutes now. Thanks! :)

9 11 2011
Featured Project: Force of Duck: Measuring explosive erection « The #SciFund Challenge

[...] 2007, the internet was ablaze with duck genitals. Brennan’s paper, Coevolution of Male and Female Genital [...]

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