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Female Ducks Develop Complicated Genitals to Outwit Aggressive Males

Brennan argues that elaborate female duck anatomy evolves as a countermeasure against aggressive males. “Once they choose a male, they’re making the best possible choice, and that’s the male they want siring their offspring,” she said. “They don’t want the guy flying in from who knows where. It makes sense that they would develop a defense.”

Dr. Brennan suspects that the female ducks can force sperm into one of the pockets and then expel it. “It only makes sense as a barrier,” she said.

To support her argument, Dr. Brennan notes studies on some species that have found that forced matings make up about a third of all matings. Yet only 3 percent of the offspring are the result of forced matings. “To me, it means these females are successful with this strategy,” she said.

Dr. Brennan suspects that when the females of a species evolved better defenses, they drove the evolution of male phalluses. “The males have to step up to produce a longer or more flexible phallus,” she said.

"You can envision an evolutionary scenario that, as the male phallus increases in size, the female creates more barriers. You get this evolutionary arms race," Brennan said.

Only if the female is relaxed and cooperative can the male's sperm get anywhere near the unfertilized eggs, the researchers suggest.

"What I think is really cool is this does speak a lot about the ability of the female to have these cryptic mechanisms of choice," Brennan said.

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