Why we study duck penises

The latest melee in the culture wars over public science funding comes from conservative CNS News, who apparently just discovered a government-funded study from 6 years ago on duck genitalia.

Despite the fact that this study was actually allocated funding during the Bush Administration, many conservatives are now decrying the way Obama's profligate spending on duck penis research led to the sequestration. This is similar to the hullaballoo last year over how the government funded shrimp research, fruitfly research, and jello wrestling in Antarctica. Over at The Loom, Carl Zimmer explains the backstory on this research, and why the most unlikely topics deserve government funds:

As in many other species, the evolution of ducks has been driven in part by something call sexual conflict. The best reproductive strategy for a male duck is not the same as the one for a female. Females will have the most duckling if they can choose the best males to father their offspring. Males, on the other hand, try to mate with as many females as possible. This sexual conflict leads to an extravagant arms race, which has produced their extravagant sexual organs. (In addition to my story for the Times, I’ve blogged about this research at the Loom, and Ed Yong has at his blog.)

In other species, sexual conflict takes many other forms. Male flies, for example, will dose their mates with toxic chemicals to ensure that their sperm fertilize the female’s eggs and not the sperm of other males.

And guess what? Human biology is shaped by sexual conflict, too. Human sperm and seminal fluid shows signs of having evolved through the competition with other sperm. (The journal Reproduction–dedicated to research on fertility–recently published a review about sperm competition in humans and other animals.)

Sexual conflict may explain some of the disorders of pregnancy. Take preeclampsia, a mysterious condition in which pregnant women develop dangerously high blood pressure–so high that they risk death.


Read more of Zimmer's eloquent explanation of public science, and its importance, over at The Loom.


Legless Legolas' LEGO Lass

I don't understand why the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is suddenly bad.