How Chickens Lost Their Penises (And Ducks Kept Theirs)

The penis is among the fastest evolving organs, with lots of variety. Most birds lost theirs.

Some ducks have helical penises that are longer than their entire bodies. But forget the helical shape, the size, and the surprisingly explosive extension—the weirdest thing about a duck’s penis is that it has one. Most birds don’t. There are almost 10,000 species of birds and only around 3 percent of them have a penis.

Chickens still have penises, but barely—they’re tiny nubs that are no good for penetrating anything. In all of these species, males still fertilise a female’s eggs by sending sperm into her body, but without any penetration. Instead, males and females just mush their genital openings together and he transfers sperm into her in a manoeuvre called the “cloacal kiss”.

“Ornithologists have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why an organ that gives males an obvious selective advantage in so many different animal species disappeared in most birds. But it’s hard to address a question on why something happens when you don’t know much about how it happens.”

It never develops a full-blown penis because, at a certain point, its cells start committing mass suicide. This type of ‘programmed cell death’ occurs throughout the living world and helps to carve away unwanted body parts—for example, our hands have fingers because the cells between them die when we’re embryos. For the chicken, it means no penis. “It was surprising to learn that outgrowth fails not due to absence of a critical growth factor, but due to presence of a cell death factor,” says Cohn.

... it’s entirely possible for a chicken to grow a penis; it’s just that Bmp4 stops this from happening. Conversely, adding extra Bmp protein to a duck tubercle could stop it from growing into its full spiralling glory, forever fixing it as a chicken-esque stub.

Bmp proteins help to control the shape and size of many body parts. They’re behind the loss of wings in soldier ants and teeth of birds. Meanwhile, bats blocked these proteins to expand the membranes between their fingers and evolve wings.

... getting rid of the proteins that keep Bmp in check leads to tiny penises. Conversely, getting rid of the Bmp proteins leads to a grossly enlarged (and almost tumour-like) penis.

We now know how chickens lost their penises, but we don’t know why a male animal that needs to put sperm inside a female would lose the organ that makes this possible. Cohn’s study hints at one possibility—it could just be a side effect of other bodily changes. Bmp4 and other related proteins are involved in the evolution of many bird body parts, including the transition from scales to feathers, the loss of teeth, and variations in beak size. Perhaps one of these transformations changed the way Bmp4 is used in the genitals and led to shrinking penises.

There are many other possible explanations. Maybe a penis-less bird finds it easier to fly, runs a smaller risk of passing on sexually-transmitted infections, or is better at avoiding predators because he mates more quickly ....

Females might even be responsible. Male ducks often force themselves upon their females but birds without an obvious phallus can’t do that. They need the female’s cooperation in order to mate.  So perhaps females started preferring males with smaller penises, so that they could exert more choice over whom fathered their chicks. (Indeed, the now-infamous story about the duck’s corkscrew penis is really a story about the duck’s corkscrew vagina.) Combinations of these explanations may be right, and different answers may apply to different groups.

Tags: bird penises

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Interesting stuff Ruth
Fascinating read!!

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