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Kangaroos have three vaginas - Not Exactly Rocket Science

Posted: 2017-12-07 00:53

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Females, as the ones who most typically do internal gestation (at least, of the with internal gestation) hit up against gestation length as something that limits their total number of offspring. What is so cool about this system is that, as you 8767 ve said, the female can have offspring at three different stages of development. Since these guys are all small, the energy it takes to do this is probably not too high, either, until the joey grows.

Molly B. Singleterry, Accidental Editor-in-Chief

I started seeing things, I ended up thinking I was Jesus Christ. Yeah.   What types of things were you seeing?   Well. well Jesus Christ, only a face really looking like Jesus Christ appeared in front of me and said, “You’re just like me.” And so I, in the end, I ended up believing I was Jesus Christ. Yeah.   And what was your experience of seeing things? What did it feel like?   I thought it was natural, you know, it was, I thought it was all part of reality. Yes.   So were you surprised when somebody said that you needed to see a psychiatrist?  Yes, I mean my first thought was oh good, someone wise to talk to, and yes, I didn’t think anything of it, you know, I thought I was, I think I thought I was Jesus Christ and yes. 

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Neotrogla ’s set-up is unlike any other in the kingdom. There are some mites and beetles in which females have a protruding organ that collects sperm, but none of these have special adaptations for anchoring themselves inside males. The female uses a protruding structure to place eggs inside the male’s pouch—it’s the male who gets pregnant and nurtures the eggs—but that’s an egg-laying device, not a penis. And, as I mentioned, the spotted hyena has an enlarged pseudopenis, but it’s still the male that does the penetrating.

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Also, I don 8767 t really see the problem with using the word 8775 penis 8776 . As a non-scientist but educated layperson, 8775 penis 8776 to me means 8775 penetrating organ 8776 . Don 8767 t the two words share an etymological root? Even in hyenas where the female has a 8775 pseudopenis 8776 , it 8767 s a PSEUDOpenis because it 8767 s still the male 8767 s penis that is doing the penetrating.
Just my undoubtedly short-sighted take on the matter.

Neotrogla sex can last for days, so it’s important for the duo to stabilise themselves. The female does it by inflating the base of her gynosome inside the male. It’s covered in patches of tiny spines, which help to anchor her in place for her sexual marathon. You can find similar spines on the penises of many male where they provide extra stimulation during sex (as in cats, mice and chimps ) or inflict horrendous wounds on the females (as in the seed beetle ).

I like Sci 8767 s point, and maybe this is what Annalee Newitz was getting to? That while it makes sense to use the term penis to refer to transfer of gametes, and that that doesn 8767 t have to be sexed, we are talking about an organ that does both, yes? So maybe it makes sense to eventually settle on the term penis to describe this organ, but it 8767 s interesting to think about (in terms of how we culturally construct power, and gender, and sex) why we wouldn 8767 t do so for the term vagina.

And sometimes you get extremely kind voices as well. I got reminded to take my medication when I came out of hospital at one point. I was having difficulty, I didn’t have a, a proper system for sorting out my medication, and I saw a friend of mine on the bus, and he was going up to the psychiatric unit to see some friends, and he was like, “Oh hi. How you’re doing?” I said, “Yes, fine. But I keep forgetting to take my medication and that.” And I suppose that was half past one, two o’clock in the afternoon. Around came 5 o’clock and I got in my head the voice, ‘medication’, which was the call at the hospital at 5 o’clock for people to come and queue up for medication, you know, so, they can be, you know, that’s a really practical salvation as well. But they can boost your confidence or whatever, you know. Sometimes obviously they can boost it a bit too much and you get on your high but you know, they can be extremely useful and kind and helpful as well, yes. 

Newitz points to differences. “When was the last time you found a penis that grew spines, absorbed nutrients, remained erect for 75 hours, or allowed its owner to get pregnant?” Actually spines are pretty common long sexual bouts are pretty common and the gynosome doesn’t absorb nutrients—it collects sperm packets that contain nutrients, which the then eats in the normal way. The key difference is that rather than delivering sperm, it collects it—as I stated right up top. And the only reason we think of penises as sending sex cells in that direction is that we never knew any other set-up could occur. Now we do, which either forces us to introduce a new term and demand that it be used, or to expand the bounds of our old term. I prefer the latter. I’m generally a lumper, rather than a splitter.

[Because the act of penetration, despite the social constructs that surround it, also has actual important biological significance. The sexual conflicts between males and females play out differently if both shoot eggs/sperm into their surroundings and fertilise externally than if that act goes on internally. It 8767 s why the evolution of genital shape and form is so rapid in groups like flies, and why it 8767 s so fascinating to biologists who study sexual selection. Penetration isn 8767 t just some cheap aspect of sex that people focus on because they 8767 re projecting some social construct. In evolutionary terms, the act of penetration has important implications for sex beyond the act of conception. Ed]

Yoshizawa thinks that this reversed sexual conflict led to the evolution of reversed genitals. The female’s gynosome allows her to anchor herself to her mate, even if he is reluctant, so that she can grab as many spermatophores as possible. “It is very likely that the entire mating process is actively controlled by females to obtain more seminal gifts from males, whereas males are rather passive,” he says. This might also explain why Neotrogla sex lasts for so long.

Yoshizawa suspects that the answer lies in the insects’ environment and lifestyle. They live in extremely dry caves and their main food—bat droppings and bat carcasses—are hard to come by. Starvation is always just round the corner, but females can fend it off by mating. That’s because the males package their sperm into packets called spermatophores, which are also loaded with nutrients. During sex, females get a meal along with sperm.

“This is possibly correct, but we know there are other species where females benefit from similar gifts but do not have a 8766 penis 8767 , such as several species of crickets, flour beetles and bean weevils,” says Jennions. “Unfortunately, when you only have one instance of a trait, it becomes difficult to attribute its evolution to a specific force, such as sexual conflict. Until we find more examples of female penises, the jury will remain out on the explanation. 8776

But Newitz also argues that the term “erases one of the most beautiful things about life, which is its awe-inspiring diversity”, and there I disagree. The post above specifically references that diversity—not just in Neotrogla but other like hyenas and and goes into detail about sexual selection. It ends deliberately with a quote about how the split between males and females comes down to sex cells, and everything else is labile. If that’s not celebrating the diversity of life, I don’t know what is. I don 8767 t think that referring to Neotrogla 8767 s female sex organ as a penis whitewashes that diversity. If anything, it forces us to realise that one of the traits we often link to a penis that it lives on a male isn 8767 t a necessary truth. The usage expands what we know, rather than erases.

Your 8775 penis 8776 just got a whole bunch of non-scientists to read an article about science! I think we should celebrate that fact. I also think that the if scientists were to find a male insect with a vagina-like structure, there would be a whole slew of articles with vagina in the title. People are fascinated by sex, it sells, and yes, if used properly it can be used to 8775 sell 8776 science.

As to the other parts of Newitz’s critique, she repeatedly says that “female penis” is an inaccurate term that is “anthropomorphizing” Neotrogla ’s anatomy—one should call the organ a “gynosome” (which I also do). I don’t agree that gynosome is accurate, while penis is not. As Diane Kelly, who studies penises points out: “As a technical term, a penis is a reproductive structure that transfers gametes from one member of a mating pair to another.” Which is exactly what is happening here.

Q: Do you remember the day you quit?
A: Yes. I cried. It was at the end of August. That summer I had my gallbladder out and I got some flak for that because I had to take some sick time and get short-term disability. I had just started dating my now-husband and I got a job offer in Chicago. I went in to tell the publisher and I burst into tears. He was unfazed. He said, “We figured you wouldn 8767 t stay that long.”

Fascinating story!
One addition. These are not the only ones with a female penis. It also occurs in the hermaphroditic flatworm Bdellocephala punctata. These male-and-female have no male penis to deliver sperm to each other. Instead, they have a female penis to suck it out of each other. The reason probably is a strong preference to mate in the female rather than the male role.
See Anthes et al. 7556: http:///science/article/pii/S5558897756556895

I imagine part of the answer may relate to their genome and organization of sex chromosomes in the family. But I suspect the other part of the answer lies in the actual differentiation of sperm and eggs. That is, as I understand it, the male is the sex that produces sperm and the female the sex that produces eggs. This is true then regardless of how the egg is fertilized or gestated (. as noted, do it differently, and the male receives the fertilized egg but that egg was still produced by the female).

[This is an awesome point. Okay, I 8767 ve mulled it over. I think the reason that I 8767 m looking at penetration as the defining trait is that we only really talk about penises and vaginas at all in species with internal fertilisation. If there 8767 s external fertilisation, the terms don 8767 t apply. If there 8767 s just a mushing together of genital openings, like in most birds, the terms don 8767 t really get used either both sexes have cloacae. So while all sex involves the transfer and reception of gametes, the terms penis and vagina are used in the context of penetration, which is why that seems like the more salient factor here. But really good point, SciC. That 8767 s my answer, but I 8767 m not entirely sold on it. Ed]

I agree with you Ed.
But one thing you write is something of a contradiction.
You say:
8775 The female uses a protruding structure to place eggs inside the male’s pouch—it’s the male who gets pregnant and nurtures the eggs—but that’s an egg-laying device, not a penis. 8776
and:
8775 As Diane Kelly, who studies penises points out: “As a technical term, a penis is a reproductive structure that transfers gametes from one member of a mating pair to another.” Which is exactly what is happening here. 8776

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