Tuesday, May 13, 2003

A Well-Endowed Duck

The vast majority of bird species do not have penises, and in those few species (mostly waterfowl) that do have them, they are not known to be especially well-developed. Of more than passing interest, then, is the surprising news that the Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata)--a resident of southern Argentina and Chile and a close relative of the Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) of North America--sports a penis that is as long as its body, a whopping 42.5 centimeters (16.7 inches)! The discoverers of this anatomical wonder, Dr. Kevin McCracken and colleagues in the McCracken Lab at the University of Alaska--Fairbanks, published their remarkable finding as a short communications in the prestigious journal, Nature. Showing that even serious research scientists have a sense of humor, the authors conclude their paper with this sentence:
The Argentine Lake Duck offers a sizeable opportunity to study sexual selection and sperm competition in birds [emphasis added].
Can't avian taxonomists and nomenclaturists come up with a more descriptive appellation for this species? I mean, just about every species of duck in the world spends time on a lake at some point during its life cycle. It's as if we suddenly started calling Mallards "Pond Ducks" and Blue-winged Teal "Marsh Ducks." Ornithologists are fond of naming birds for their obvious physical attributes. We have, for example, such things as the Large-billed Crow, Large-headed Flatbill, Large-tailed Antshrike, Long-billed Curlew, Long-legged Buzzard, Long-tailed Duck, Long-tufted Screech-Owl, and Long-winged Antwren, to name but a few. Surely some imaginative ornithologist can coin a more descriptive yet socially acceptable name for the bird laying claim to the longest male reproductive organ.

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