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Column: Why I study duck genitalia

Like humans, ducks form pair bonds but  can exhibit violent sexual coercion.

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Like humans, ducks form pair bonds but can exhibit violent sexual coercion.

In the past few days, the Internet has been filled with commentary on whether the National Science Foundation should have paid for my study on duck genitalia. As the lead investigator in this research, I would like to weigh in and offer some insights into the process of research funding by the NSF.

My research on bird genitalia was originally funded in 2005, during the Bush administration. Since Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards in the 1970s and 1980s, basic science projects are periodically singled out by people with political agendas to highlight how government "wastes" taxpayer money on seemingly foolish research. These arguments misrepresent the distinction between and the roles of basic and applied science.

Basic science is not aimed at solving an immediate practical problem. Basic science is an integral part of scientific progress, but individual projects may sound meaningless when taken out of context. Basic science often ends up solving problems anyway, but it is just not designed for this purpose.

Applied science builds upon basic science, so they are inextricably linked. Whether the government should fund basic research in times of economic crisis is a valid question that deserves well-informed discourse comparing all governmental expenses. As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy. The government cannot afford not to make that investment.

Congress decides the total amount of money that the NSF gets from the budget, but it does not decide which individual projects are funded — and neither does the president or his administration. Funding decisions are made by panels of scientists who are experts in the field.

This brings us back to the ducks. Male ducks force copulations on females, and males and females are engaged in a genital arms race with surprising consequences. Male ducks have elaborate corkscrew-shaped penises, the length of which correlates with the degree of forced copulation males impose on female ducks.

Females are often unable to escape male coercion, but they have evolved vaginal morphology that makes it difficult for males to inseminate females close to the sites of fertilization and sperm storage. Males have counterclockwise spiraling penises, while females have clockwise spiraling vaginas and blind pockets that prevent full eversion of the male penis.

Our latest study examined how the presence of other males influences genital morphology. My colleagues and I found that it does so to an amazing degree, demonstrating that male competition is a driving force behind these male traits that can be harmful to females.

That this grant was funded, after the careful scrutiny of many scientists and NSF administrators, reflects how this research is grounded in solid theory and that the project was viewed as having the potential to move science forward (and it has), as well as fascinate and engage the public. Most of the grant money was spent on salaries, putting money back into the economy.

The importance of evolutionary research on other species' genitalia to the medical field has been recently highlighted in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Generating new knowledge of what factors affect genital morphology in ducks, one of the few vertebrate species other than humans that form pair bonds and exhibit violent sexual coercion, may have significant applied uses in the future, but we must conduct the basic research first.

In the meantime, while we engage in productive and respectful discussion of how we envision the future of our nation, why not marvel at how evolution has resulted in such counterintuitive morphology and bizarre animal behavior.

Patricia Brennan has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from Cornell University. She began her studies of avian genitalia at Yale University and Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. She is currently a research professor in the department of biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she continues her research on the evolutionary consequences of sexual conflict. © 2013 Slate

Column: Why I study duck genitalia 04/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 1:33pm]

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