The Duck Penis, Part I: An Existential Quandary

What is the meaning of the duck penis?
Existence precedes tumescence, one might say of penises. Thus, dear reader, before getting into the nitty-gritty of the duck penis and duck erections, I would like to first address the unusual existential quandary they pose.

The quandary is this: Only about 3% of bird species have a penis (Briskie and Montgomerie 1997). In the other 97% the external genitals of both males and females is a nubby little orifice called the cloaca, and mating is a simple matter of bumping nubs together for few seconds in a so-called “cloacal kiss.”

However, nearly all duck and waterfowl species do have a penis. You may ask: why should this be the case? Why the Being of the duck penis and not the Nothingness of the cloaca? What is the meaning of the existence of the duck penis?

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Special Announcement: April is D.P. Month!

Duck Penis Month, April 2013

Dear reader, the phones and fax lines here at PRIC labs are ringing off the hook! Everyone is asking the same thing: “Dr. Cox, what is your take on the duck penis controversy?” At first I was flummoxed. What controversy? The celebrated study put out by Prof. Patricia Brennan in 2007 was pretty conclusive on the matter: The Argentinian lake duck’s elaborate and explosive corkscrew penis is best explained by the theory of “sexual conflict”, that is, the duck penis likely the result of an evolutionary “arms race” between male and female duck genitals, driven by the different evolutionary interests of male and female ducks. Case closed. Another bizarre animal penis made explicable thanks to the ingenuity of a first-rate penis scientist.

But no, that was not the controversy my followers had in mind. After a quick Ask Jeeves search, I surfed my Netscape Navigator over some links and found what all the fuss about. It seems some conservative media outlets are “crying fowl” that Breenan received grant money from the NSF and are singling our her research as example of wasteful government spending, fueling a firestorm of outrage on Tweeter.

Of course, none of this comes as a surprise to me. Penis scientists are always on the defensive; our research is routinely the derided and mocked by other scientists, by the pop-sci publications, by our ex-wives, etc., but rarely is our discipline subject to such invidious public scorn as this.

However, Brennan has not shrunk in response to the cold reception from the public.  Recently she authored a stirring defense of her research entitled, “Why I Study Duck Genitalia,” published at Slate.com.  Here she points out the obstacle all too familiar to the penis scientist:

The commentary and headlines in some of the recent articles reflect outrage that the study was about duck genitals, as if there is something inherently wrong or perverse with this line of research. Imagine if medical research drew the line at the belt! Genitalia, dear readers, are where the rubber meets the road, evolutionarily.

I sense a kindred spirit in Prof. Brennan (is she a dear reader of Curious Cox, I wonder?) and in a show of solidarity I am proud to announce we are declaring April 2013 is Duck Penis Month on Curious Cox! Join us as we celebrate with a series of posts examining the magnificent duck penis with a special focus on Prof. Brennan’s groundbreaking work.

Stay Curious,

Richard Cox, PhD.

Dr. Richard Cox, PhD.