In the past week, Yale ornithology professor Richard Prum has come under attack from various media outlets for his study of ducks’ sexual anatomy and forced copulation.
Fox News, PolitiFact and CNSNews, among other news sources, have all issued attacks on Prum’s study, describing it as a misuse of taxpayer money. On March 25, Fox News published a survey showing that 87 percent of its readers disapproved of the National Science Foundation’s decision to fund Prum’s study, entitled “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia.” Biology assistant professor Patricia Brennan, the study’s principal investigator, said the media’s attacks on the research reveal the public’s ignorance about the significance of sexual coercion — which she described as “essentially rape” — among ducks.
“One of the points of the research is to deeply comprehend the evolutionary consequences of the fact of rape in nonhuman female animals,” Prum said.
Prum said the media attacks issued on his research are not timely, because the NSF awarded his research team the $384,949 grant for his study in 2009. The funding is set to expire in July 2013, and Prum said he is not trying to renew it.
Prum and Brennan’s research has examined how female duck genitalia have evolved to respond to forced copulation and how male genitalia has evolved to overcome lack of reproductive opportunities. Duck populations typically have a higher proportion of males, so many male ducks are unable to attract a female mate, Prum said. When males do not find a partner, they often sexually coerce females to reproduce — a process called forced copulation. Brennan’s research has found that many male ducks have evolved larger penises so they can force themselves on female ducks more aggressively. In response, female ducks have evolved more complex reproductive tracts that inhibit the entry of the penis during forced copulation. Prum and Brennan found that many female ducks die or suffer severe injuries from forced copulation.
In order to study how duck anatomy has evolved in response to sexual conflict, Prum and Brennan used artificial glass tubes of different shapes to show how the erection of a bird’s penis changes based on the systems it is entering. They also studied distinct duck populations to confirm their hypothesis that males develop larger penises under highly competitive mating conditions. Prum said they learned that individual bird penises redevelop every year and grow to different sizes depending on the level of competition during the breeding season.
Sexual coercion among ducks used to be labeled “rape,” Prum said, but during the feminist revolution of the 1970s, advocates shifted the biological use of the word “rape” and called the phenomenon among ducks “forced copulation.” As a result, the public began to disregard the importance of sexual violence for nonhuman animals, he added.
Brennan said her research will offer insight to those studying the causes of human sexual violence. She added the research will help scientists currently examining a particular population of ducks in Hawaii that Brennan believes is at risk of extinction due to the number of females dying from sexual violence.
NSF spokeswoman Deborah Wing told CNSNews on March 19 that the foundation decided to fund the study because of its practical implications.
“The study met the criteria of the NSF panel of scientific peers as part of the grant approval process,” Wing said.
Prum said many of the media outlets attacking NSF for funding the duck study do not understand the scientific merits of the research. These attacks reveal the need for improved science education in the United States, particularly in the field of evolutionary biology, Brennan said.
“Fox News didn’t want to ask us about the science because the topic we were studying, sexual violence, is actually significant,” Prum said. “Fox News has a wincing inability to even say the word ‘penis.’”
NSF awards approximately 11,000 new grants a year, according to the organization’s website.