Hung Like a Barnacle

The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long.

“We all know about the birds and the bees…” goes the jacket and webpage copy for this book, but do we? In fact, I can’t think of a stranger duo of examples to be used as an euphemism for courtship and sex. Queen honey bees, for instance, are impregnated by multiple drones on their mating flights; the male bees are torn asunder in the process and fall to earth to die afterwards. While many birds have complicated courtship rituals, including nest and bower building, the actual fertilization is extremely brief. Cloaca (charmingly, from the Latin for sewer) connect, sperm is exchanged, and that’s it. The fastest copulation on record is a bird’s; the dunnocks take a tenth of a second, while flying. Since birds are essentially dinosaurs, does this mean the dinosaurs did it the same way, too? Probably not, actually, because flightless birds like ostriches and emus have penises (defined here as “any male reproductive structure used to transfer sperm into a female” for internal fertilization), and so do ducks and geese, and these species are genetically more primitive, that is, closer to the originating dinosaurs, than perching birds. Passerines don’t need penises and have dropped them, so to speak, over evolutionary time.

Author Long was one of the discoverers of a 380-million year old placoderm fossil in Australia that revealed an embryo, the oldest evidence of internal fertilization. Placoderms were armored fish-like animals common on earth until extinction about 359 million years ago; current thinking pegs them as the ancestor of all jawed animals. This finding becomes the wide-ranging focus of the question of internal fertilization, perhaps the most complicated form of animal reproduction, and the nature of the tools necessary for such processes.

Speaking of tools… is it inevitable that such a topic brings out the bad puns? Maybe only amongst us boys. There a couple such groaners here, including the title. The original Australian title of the book suggests some extra-cultural differences: Hung Like An Argentine Duck. The males of the duck species in question have a corkscrew-shaped penis longer than their bodies, but it’s the goose barnacle that takes the prize. In some species, the barnacle penis can be up to eight times the length of the body. Barnacles also shed and then grow new ones every year. Barnacle willies are also habitat sensitive: rough water will result in different shapes than calm water. Somehow, though, I doubt this information will be entering the popular discourse.

This edition was published by the University of Chicago Press. There are examples of horrendous editing in its pages. There’s a lot of this in books now, but it’s more distressing when found in a university press edition.

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