DeforestACTION: TakingITGlobal

DeforestAction is a student let global initiative to end deforestation. Be an EcoWarrior and take a pledge now to STOP using PALM OIL products! There are several ways that you can get involved, which are listed below (taken directly from DeforestACTION website):

What do you get when a small group of students around the world come together by using the power of technology to connect on sharing resources and knowledge on combating deforestation? – DEFORESTACTION, a global movement of youth and schools active in tackling one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Today, the network has grown to include over 18,000 youth and students from all four corners of the globe. Check out the list below to find out how you can get involved. Try all five suggestions or start slowly by taking up one at a time. Every action makes a difference and collectively we have the power to demand sustainable environmental practices that will protect our world’s forests for generations to come!

1) Become Aware – Learn about deforestation and why immediate action must be taken to stop it

  • Did you know that over 75% of deforestation practices in Borneo, Indonesia are illegal? What methods are used in deforestation? How does clear-cutting trees increase climate change? What consequences does this have on the local peoples and animals of the deforested areas? Learn more about deforestation through the TakingITGlobal Environment page, or hear directly from those who witnessed it on the ground. Find links to other online resources in the DeforestACTION Collaboration Centre or head to your local library! You may just be inspired to take DeforestACTION!

2) Sign up and join the online community

  • By signing up for DeforestACTION you gain access to a network of thousands of students and teachers worldwide who are also working towards combating deforestation. Get your own action hub to showcase your DeforestACTION efforts, use Earthwatchers to monitor the rainforests of Borneo, receive notifications on our live webinar offerings and participate by sharing with the online community the work you are doing. Harness the power of social media to amplify your voice and spread awareness to a global audience!
  • Are you an EDUCATOR? Sign-up for a school action hub to exhibit what your students have learned and how they are getting involved. Download resources from the virtual classrooms and share them with other interested individuals! Help your students build 21st century skills through the implementation of technology in your DeforestACTION classroom initiatives!

3) Take a personal approach

  • Take personal action in stopping deforestation by signing a petition, make an online pledge to stop using products that contain palm oil products, download TakingITGlobal’s new Commit2Act application to keep track of your environmental actions, write to your local members of government asking them to address the issue of deforestation or post a comment on your favourite social media outlets to spread the word to your friends and contacts. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or use the hastag: #deforestaction.

4) Engage your community!

  • Organize an event at your school or local community that highlights the issue of global deforestation and help spread awareness about DeforestACTION’s work to help support this pressing cause.  Check out the DeforestACTION Day guide or the TakingITGlobal Guide to Action to help you plan your event!

5) Donate

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Science in the News Article: Top 10 New Species of 2013 Announced

My personal favorite is the  sweet eyed Olinguito found in Ecuador! It just goes to show that we still have a lot to learn about the other living organisms in which we share the planet with.

May 22, 2014 by Sci-News.com
An awesome mammal from Colombia and Ecuador, a leaf-tailed gecko from Australia and a snail with semi-transparent shell from Croatia are among the new species identified by the SUNY-ESF International Institute for Species Exploration as the top 10 new species discovered in 2013.

Established in 2008, the annual top-10 list calls attention to discoveries that are made even as species are going extinct faster than they are being identified.

“The majority of people are unaware of the dimensions of the biodiversity crisis,” said Dr Quentin Wheeler, president of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and founding director of the International Institute for Species Exploration.

Scientists believe 10 million species await discovery, about 5 times the number that are already known to science.

1. Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), a new carnivorous mammal from Colombia and Ecuador:

The Olinguito, Bassaricyon neblina, in the wild. Photo credit: Mark Gurney.

This animal resembles a cross between a slinky cat and a wide-eyed teddy bear. It lives secretively in cloud forests of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. It is an arboreal carnivore that belongs to the family Procyonidae, which includes the familiar raccoon.

The olinguito is smaller, though, typically topping out at about 2 kg. It is the first new carnivorous mammal described in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

2. Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii), a new tree from Thailand:

Dracaena kaweesakii and its flowers. Credit: Warakorn Kasempankul / Parinya Siriponamat / Paul Wilkin.

The Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree grows up to 12 m tall. Beautiful, soft, sword-shaped leaves with white edges and cream-colored flowers with bright orange filaments are the hallmarks of this plant.

The tree is found in the limestone mountains of the Loei and Lop Buri Provinces in Thailand and may also be found in nearby Burma. Valued as a horticultural plant, its small number – perhaps 2,500, and the fact that it grows on limestone that is extracted for the manufacture of concrete, has earned this species a preliminary conservation status of endangered.

3. Andrill anemone (Edwardsiella andrillae), a new marine anemone from Antarctica:

In an underwater image, Edwardsiella andrillae anemones protrude from the bottom surface of the Ross Ice Shelf. They glow in the camera's light. Image credit: Frank Rack / ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Edwardsiella andrillae is a small creature, less than 2.5 cm. It has pale yellow body and two dozen tentacles.

It lives under a glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica and was discovered when the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program (ANDRILL) sent a remotely operated submersible vehicle into holes that had been drilled into the ice.

4. Skeleton shrimp (Liropus minusculus), a new crustacean from an island off the coast of Southern California, the United States:

Liropus minusculus, male. Image credit: SINC / J.M. Guerra-García.

This shrimp, the smallest in the genus, was identified from among specimens originally collected from a cave on the island of Santa Catalina.

The Skeleton shrimp has an eerie, translucent appearance that makes it resemble a bony structure. The male’s body measures just 3.3 mm; the female is even smaller at 2.1 mm.

5. Orange penicillium (Penicillium vanoranjei), a new fungus from Tunisia:

Penicillium vanoranjei. Image credit: Cobus M. Visagie / Jan Dijksterhuis.

The Orange penicillium was named as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, specifically His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange.

This species produces a sheet-like extra-cellular matrix that may function as protection from drought.

6. Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius eximius), a new lizard from Australia:

The Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko with regenerated tail. Image credit: Conrad Hoskin.

Discovered on rocky terrain in isolated rain forests of the Melville Range of eastern Australia, this species has an extremely wide tail that is employed as part of its camouflage. With longer limbs, a more slender body and larger eyes than other Saltuarius species, the gecko has a mottled coloration that allows it to blend in with its surroundings.

Native to rain forests and rocky habitats, the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed gecko is a bit of a night owl. It is found on the vertical surfaces of rocks and trees as it waits for prey. Surveys of similar habitat near the area where this species was found did not reveal additional populations, so this may be a rare species.

7. Amoeboid protist (Spiculosiphon oceana), a new one-celled organism from Mediterranean Sea:

Two specimens of Spiculosiphon oceana. Image credit: Manuel Maldonado.

This species was discovered in underwater caves 30 miles off the southeast coast of Spain. It grows up to 5 cm long – a giant in the world of single-celled organisms. It gathers pieces of silica spicules, which are actually sponge fragments, from its surroundings and uses them like so many Lego blocks to construct a shell.

It ends up looking much like a carnivorous sponge as well as feeding like one, extending pseudopods outside the shell to feed on invertebrates that have become trapped in the spiny structures.

8. Clean room microbe (Tersicoccus phoenicis), a new aerobic, gram-positive bacterium from French Guiana and Florida, the United States:

Tersicoccus phoenicis. Image credit: Leibniz-Institute DSMZ / Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.

Tersicoccus phoenicis was independently collected from the floors of clean rooms in Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Center Spatial Guyanais, Kourou, French Guiana. While frequent sterilization reduces the microbes found in clean rooms, some resistant species persist.

Found in the cleanest places on our planet – where spacecraft are assembled, this bacterium could potentially contaminate other planets that the spacecraft visit.

9. Tinkerbell fairyfly (Tinkerbella nana), a new insect from Costa Rica:

Micrograph of Tinkerbella nana magnifies the delicate fairyfly structure. Scale line - 100 μm (Jennifer Read / Natural Resources Canada)

This species was named for Peter Pan’s fairy sidekick. It measures just 250 micrometers and is among the smallest insects. It is the latest addition to the 1,400 or so known species of the parasitoid wasp family Mymaridae.

The Tinkerbell fairyfly was collected by sweeping vegetation in secondary growth forest at LaSelva Biological Station in Costa Rica.

10. Domed land snail (Zospeum tholussum), a snail with semi-transparent shell from Croatia:

The cave-dwelling snail Zospeum tholussum. Image credit: J. Bedek.

This snail was discovered about 980 m below the surface in the Lukina Jama-Trojama caves of western Croatia.

It measures only 2 mm in length and moves slowly, creeping only a few mm or cm a week.

The species lacks eyes as they’re not necessary in the total darkness of the caves, and has no shell pigmentation giving it a ghost-like appearance.

Only one living specimen was collected in a large cavern among rocks and sand with a small stream of running water nearby, however many shells were also found in the area.

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/science-top10-new-species-01938.html

Visual Notes: Homo sapien VS. Australopithecus afarensis

Another fantastic illustration of how we use Visual Notes in IBDP Biology. Students were asked to compare the morphological skeletal features of Homo sapien and Australopithecus afarensis and this is what they created! unnamed

TOK: Are Homo floresiensis a separate species or remains of a diseased homo sapiens?: Nathalie

TOK: The Little People of Flores

Posted by Nathalie Istanto in Biology SL on Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Are Homo floresiensis a separate species or remains of a diseased homo sapiens?

Based on the video in PBS on Homo floresiensis, I think that they are a separate species. It is highly improbable that the Homo floresiensis are a diseased homo sapiens because of the shape of their brain cavity. It does not look like a normal human’s brain cavity, which meant that the skull found on Flores is unlikely to be a human’s.

There might be a small chance seeing that a certain disease could reduce the brain size, known as microencephaly. However, I think that there are more than one Homo florensiensis alive during that time, and the probability that they all had the same disease affecting them the same way over a few thousand years is highly unlikely. I think that the Homo floresiensis might act like human in some ways, which might lead to some people thinking that they are part of a diseased homo sapiens.

The Homo floresiensis built bridges and are able to catch animals. It also seemed that they lived together in caves. This shows some capability for them to think before they act, which is similar to humans in a sense, though not as advanced. A smaller brain cavity does not mean that they are less advanced. If the disease were to affect the brain, wouldn’t it affect their brain capability too? Yet, the Homo floresiensis were able to use tools. Their small size is theorized to be from island isolation, which leads to them growing smaller to make use of what limited resources they have in that island. I just knew that species adapt to a smaller size in an isolated island overtime, although it makes sense as they want to use as little resource as they can.

From the video, I disagree with the scientist that said that the Ebu Gogo does not exist. I think that there might be a small chance that they still exist, but they might be hiding somewhere in the jungle or caves of Flores. It might be that they feel threatened by the Homo sapiens because of their smaller size. It might also be that their behavior differs to our behavior, which is another indication of them being a separate species.

The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle

The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle lives in the Namibian Desert, where water is scarce. Seeing as water is necessary for the survival of any form of life, this poses a challenge to organisms. The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle has an extremely innovative method of obtaining moisture in its harsh environment.

The Namib Desert is the site of a remarkable natural phenomenon. The cold Benguela current causes a fog to roll into the desert, serving as a source of water. This fog occurs roughly 30 days every year and in a single day can deposit up to 1 litre of water per square meter (on the mesh of an artificial fog screen).

The Fog Basking Beetles exploit this rare occurrence by climbing to the top of sand dunes and face the wind with their backs in the air. They then turn their bodies into literal water collectors. Water droplets form on their elytra* and roll down into their mouths. In some varieties of Fog Basking Beetle, it is thought that their elytra are hydrophobic surfaces. This causes the water in the fog to bead up and slide down into their mouths.

This resource exploitation is extremely successful. Other similar beetles that do not exhibit such fog basking behaviour have serious decline in population during times of drought. However, the fog-basking beetle is still present in large numbers at such periods of scarcity.

*Elytra: The forewings of the beetle

Read all about it: http://1.usa.gov/1eGK3HQ
Image URL: http://bit.ly/15sSKNv
Watch a video: http://bit.ly/11vHwKO

World’s Biggest Dinosaur Discovered

May 17, 2014 | by Lisa Winter
Read more at http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/%E2%80%9Cworld%E2%80%99s-biggest-dinosaur%E2%80%9D-discovered#PYvu2t7RE1B5SleW.99

A farmer in Chubut, Argentina made an incredible dinosaur discovery about three years ago. While working out in his fields, he stumbled across some fossilized dinosaur remains. Paleontologists from the nearby Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio excavated the area and found about 150 incredibly well-preserved bones from seven individuals of a species that is likely the largest to ever walk the Earth.

The remains come from a newly-described species of titanosaur, which are large herbivorous sauropods. It lived in the late Mesozoic about 95 million years ago. This behemoth will not have a name until the findings are published in a scientific journal, but the researchers have claimed they will choose a title that pays tribute to the region, the farmer, and the dinosaur’s incredible size.

It is estimated to be an astonishing 40 meters (130 feet) long from head to tail and 20 meters (65 feet) tall. A creature this large would have likely weighed in at a hefty 77 tonnes (85 short tons), which is over eleven times more than Tyrannosaurs rex.

Researchers are currently comparing this species to Argentinosaurus, which is currently regarded as the largest dinosaur ever. However, Argentinosaurus is believed to weigh about 7 tonnes (7.7 tons) less than this new species, and has likely been officially dethroned as the largest terrestrial animal ever.

Understanding the true size of the dinosaurs is always open for some debate when there isn’t a complete skeleton. Assumptions must be made about the size and shape of missing bones, based on what they know about related species. However, there may be many more clues that have not yet been surfaced at the dig site.

José Luis Carballido, who is leading the dig has said in a press release on the museum’s website that the team is “[s]till working on this extraordinary site. We estimate that one fifth of the excavation process is completed, so there is still much work to do and probably much to discover.”

The researchers also found more than 60 teeth belonging to carnivorous species, who likely scavenged on the dead titanosaurs. Carballido claims that this opportunity came at a price, as the giant herbivores likely had incredibly thick skin that would have broken the carnivores’ teeth, though the teeth would have grown back.

Other fossils from the site indicate that when this giant dinosaur lived, the local landscape was quite green and lush with flowers and trees. The titanosaurs likely gathered near a source of water, and may have died after getting caught in mud.

The researchers note that the farmer’s family has been very accommodating during the excavation process as many pieces of large digging equipment have been brought in onto the land.

[All images credited to: Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio]


Read more at http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/%E2%80%9Cworld%E2%80%99s-biggest-dinosaur%E2%80%9D-discovered#PYvu2t7RE1B5SleW.99

The Cosmos E3 Reflection: Nathalie

COSMOS: Episode 3

Posted by Nathalie Istanto in Biology SL on Sunday, May 18th, 2014 at 3:47 pm

The third episode of COSMOS was on how we have tried to map out our galaxy and tried to make sense of it from the very beginning of time. I didn’t really find much of the episode that interesting, but there were some parts that I think were important and also quite interesting.

My favorite part was at the beginning of the episode, which was when the narrator begins talking about how we, humans, try to find connections that might not really be there. An interesting example was how we tried to map out the comets and marked them as ill omens, when they are actually just rocks from outer space. However, comets are what created a revolution in the way we viewed our skies, through a discussion of two very important people, Isaac Newton and Edmond Haley.

I think that Edmond Haley was a really great guy. He had many different inventions, including the diving bell and the weather map. I always thought he was the man who found Haley’s comet, but as it turned out, he did many other things. He was also a good friend of Newton, and kept him from locking himself away in his room. Haley helped Newton published his book, which helped changed people’s minds that they might actually be able to learn more about what is up there.

Isaac Newton was more of a surprise to me. Previously, I only knew him as the guy who came up with the theory of gravity. Now, I know that we apparently share the same birthday, and that he was a brilliant, and slightly mad genius. He was able to figure out calculations that no one as could, but his one major flaw was that he didn’t want to publish anything else after how Robert Hooke accused him of stealing his work. It was only through Haley’s efforts that Newton was able to go and publish his work. This shows how important having friends and being nice to other people is.

I think that I want to watch the next episode of COSMOS. The whole series is very much interesting on how the galaxy and our earth work.

The Cosmos E3 Reflection: Christy

EPISODE THREE: When Knowledge Conquered Fear (14/05/14)

In this third episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson introduces viewers to the contribution of pattern recognition in the advancement of humanity’s understanding of the universe. It was told that, as timely as the early civilization, humans utilized patterns in the sky to predict weather and seasons. At present, we understand that comets are celestial objects that heat up and outgas to display tails when their nucleases are exposed to solar radiation. In the past, however, humans perceived comets as omens for the future. Such gesture, in my opinion, reflects that, even since the first civilization, a part of human nature is designed to nurture the desire to believe in the existence of something bigger than ourselves – whether it’d be an all-encompassing God or destiny.

After an introduction on the basics of pattern recognition, the episode transitions to a story of Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton. Before watching this episode, I didn’t know that both Halley and Newton lived in the same time period (woops), let alone collaborated to produce Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematicathe first scientific work that examines the laws of physics through mathematics. I learnt that the publication of the work faced an array of hardships including the claim of plagiarism by Robert Hooke and lack of funding. Not surprisingly, the work was also deemed controversial as it challenges the notion that God designed and created the entire universe.

Left to right: Robert Hooke ("Hooke"), Edmond Halley ("Halley"), Isaac Newton ("Newton") and the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Philosophiæ")

To conclude, the episode focuses on Edmond Halley and his achievements – which were largely possible due to his ability to recognize and interpret patterns. I instinctively correlate the surname “Halley” to the famous Comet Halley, and instantly assumed that Edmond Halley was the one who pinpointed the comet’s characteristics. Nevertheless, I was surprised to discover that Halley’s work with Comet Halley is, in the words of Tyson, “his less significant contribution to the field of astronomy.” As it turns out, Halley was also the first person to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun, chart motions of the stars and map out the Earth’s magnetic field!

All in all, through this episode, I mainly learnt about the role of pattern recognition in supplementing our understanding of the universe through case studies of humans in the early civilization, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton.

IMAGES 

“Halley.” Pinpoint Weather Blog. Web. 17 May 2014. <http://cbs3weather.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/edmond-halley-and-meteorology/&gt;.

“Hooke.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hooke&gt;.

“Newton.” Flash Sul Mondo … Di Tutto, Di Più: Isaac Newton: Primo Scienziato O Ultimo Alchimista. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://ambranna.blogspot.com/2013/10/isaac-newton-primo-scienziato-o-ultimo.html&gt;.

 “Philosophiæ.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophi%C3%A6_Naturalis_Principia_Mathematica&gt;.

The Cosmos E3 Reflection: Liam

Cosmos (Space-Time Odyssey), “3rd Episode”

Posted by William Sugiharto in Biology 11 on Saturday, May 17th, 2014 at 7:15 am

Cosmos-Episode3
What can I say, the newest episode of “Cosmos, Space time Odyssey” dove into all things small and big comprising of the modern history of science. And again, it took me to the edge of my seat, thrilled and intrigued by the special effects that are comprised in this episode which is exceedingly superb and original. The musics that are utilized throughout the 3rd episode of cosmos matches very well to the context that are being presented thus, drawing my attention throughout the whole 3rd episode of the space time Odyssey.

The 3rd episode of the, “Cosmos: A personal Voyage”, really took me to the edge of my seat. It explicitly explains the understanding of how comets, gravity’s work and also not to mention, the solar system that has altered the way on how human gazes at the stars and science.

From what I can refer back from the 3rd episode of the cosmos is: “Edmond halley did not discover Halley’s comet and that Isaac newtons “Principia” which is newton’s three laws of motion, almost wasn’t published”.

Presently today, comets are usually refereed and named for the people who have stumbled on discovering them, however, this isn’t the same identical occurrence with Halley’s comet, the most prominent periodic comet. Halley’s comet as refereed back at the 3rd episode, become visible at the skies during night about once, approximately every 75 or 76 years, and during the time Edmund Halley (the comet’s namesake) didn’t discover it, nevertheless he was able to predict the orbits of comets that are all around the sun for the very first time. By identifying a system of pattern in his investigation research,  Halley was acknowledged as the first person to trail the tracks of the comet’s period. A very persistent person which ultimately leads to his success of his discovery.

“Halley also chase down every aspect of the astronomical observations of the comet recorded inside Europe between the year of 1472 to 1698. And quite ironically, this will be an intense work for Halley since there are no computers and search engines available during that period of time to aid his observations, since everything was not as advanced as today. Everything that Halley had were only his mind and the numerous amount of books that he owned. Halley had to gather all of the observations presented for each comet and identify the shape’s appearance of it actual path through space. I couldn’t say less, he was a mathematical genius and brilliance who was determined of his observations. Soon after, he discovered that the comets were bound to the sun in a long, oval orbits.”

What really shocks me most in the 3rd episode of the cosmos is that Isaac Newton’s “Principia” almost wasn’t published. The Royal society in the science area, accumulated most of their money for only one purpose and that is on, printing books of “The History of Fish,” leaving very little funding for Isaac Newton to produce his very scientific masterpiece which is, “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which is basically the three laws of motion of the universe, explaining why the planets revolves around the sun the way they do. But here’s the good news, Edmond Halley came to the rescue and that came to the publication of Isaac newton’s book  :)

Overall, I think that the 3rd episode comprised with cool special effects and it is indeed really captivating throughout the whole episode just like the 1st episode and the 2nd episode. Once again, I really enjoyed both the information context and the sparkling graphic 3D effects that the Cosmos Odyssey Adventure put up.

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Science in the News Article: How corkscrew vaginas and female penises evolved

Menno Schilthuizen, author of "Nature's Nether Regions" (Viking, 2014), looks at saki monkeys at the Prospect Park Zoo.

Menno Schilthuizen, author of “Nature’s Nether Regions” (Viking, 2014), looks at saki monkeys at the Prospect Park Zoo.
Credit: Megan Gannon for Live Science

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — A male ruddy duck with a sky-blue beak coasted across a pond here at the Prospect Park Zoo, brightening a rudely cold spring day.

“There’s a very nice sexually selected bill color,” Dutch biologist Menno Schilthuizen said, poking his head over the wooden-post fence.

At some point in the species’ history, female ruddy ducks decided blue bills were sexy, and evolution favored the flamboyant feature. But evolution just as carefully selected another extravagant male trait, which, at the time, was hidden: a long, corkscrew-shaped penis. [The 7 Weirdest Animal Penises]

In his new book, “Nature’s Nether Regions” (Viking, 2014), Schilthuizen takes a sweeping look across the animal kingdom — from ducks tohermaphroditic snails that have sex all day to sharks that use one of their penises, or “claspers,” (they have two) to flush rival sperm out of the female’s vagina — to illustrate an amazing diversity of genitalia that has been largely unappreciated, even among scientists.

A sluggish start

“I think a lot of evolutionary biologists and people working on sexual selection were not fully aware of the genital diversity that exists,” Schilthuizen told Live Science in an interview at the zoo, commenting on the study of the evolution of sex parts, which has only taken off in the last 25 to 30 years. “The information was there, but it was contained within the field of taxonomy, where it was used extensively for identifying and circumscribing species.”

Many bumblebee species, for example, share the same wardrobe, and the only way for taxonomists to tell them apart was to capture a male and examine its penis, Schilthuizen explained in his book. But it took decades for scientists to realize that species-specific sex parts weren’t part of some lock-and-key design, but rather something more complex.

Back to the ruddy duck: While most birds don’t have any penis whatsoever, ducks do, and these prodigious members unfurl explosively when it’s time to mate. Only recently did scientists discover that some female ducks have long, corkscrew-shapedmenno-schilthuizen-zoo vaginas that spiral in the opposite direction as the male’s member. This allows the female to fight back against undesirable, notoriously aggressive males, since the duck’s penis won’t fit so easily. In this way, duck genitals look less like the byproducts of choosy females than the consequences of a sexual arms race, where male and female parts have evolved in response to each other’s ever-advancing equipment.

Charles Darwin might bear some of the blame for this tunnel vision. For all his contributions to the study of evolution, Darwin’s focus on secondary features unconnected to sex organs may have limited how biologists began investigating sexual selection.

“Because Darwin had paved the way with colorful feathers, rather than genitals, people who work on sexual selection had immediately started working on bird plumage and external features of precopulatory sexual selection, things like these colorful furs,” Schilthuizen said, this time pointing at the orange coats of the perky marmosets hopping between branches behind the glass of an indoor display. And sexual selection of bright colors and bizarre nether regions are not simply special cases of natural selection. [Why So Many Animals Evolved to Masturbate]

“It’s really sort of like chasing a moving target,” Schilthuizen said. “It’s not a kind of evolution that has an optimum or an end point, which adaptation to the environment often does have. The environment is usually much more static than the other half of the same species that co-evolves in response. That’s, by definition, a very dynamic kind of evolution.”

Female penises, male vaginas

When talking about genitals, scientists risk wading into a “semantic morass,” as Schilthuizen calls it in his book. That was perhaps apparent in April when a group of researchers announced the discovery of four news species of cave insects in which the females have a penis — or technically, an organ called a “gynosome,” which acts like a penis — and the male organ more closely resembles a vagina with valuable packets of sperm.

Shown here, the female penis structure of the cave insect Neotrogla aurora.
Shown here, the female penis structure of the cave insect Neotrogla aurora.
Credit: Current Biology, Yoshizawa et al.

“It’s such a good way of illustrating that sexual roles are not about whatsex chromosomes you have or what kind of sex cells you produce, but it’s really about how much you invest in the offspring, and that is what drives not only the intensity but also the direction of sexual selection,” Schilthuizen said.

For the role-reversing cave insects of the genus Neotrogla, the males’ sperm packets, or spermatophores, offer hard-to-come-by nutrients to the females to produce eggs and nourish their offspring. [See Photos of the Genital-Reversed Cave Insects]

“The male has become the sex which invests most nutrients in the offspring, so the male has become the choosy sex, and the females compete over access to the males with their large nutrient spermatophore,” Schilthuizen said. “That has set in motion the evolution of an intermittent organ in the females to either forcefully or otherwise persuade the male to give up that spermatophore.”

Human bias

Perhaps our tendency to anthropomorphize even tiny cave insects makes Neotrogla‘s gender-reversed arrangement seem bizarre. But if human bias distorts the way we look at animals, it also distorts the way we view ourselves.

As recently as the 1960s, many people — biologists even — held on to the rather romantic notion that the female orgasm was unique to humans and perhaps functioned as a way to promote bonding between couples. But for many animals, courtship extends beyond flaunting a flashy coat. Most female mammals have a clitoris, and likely experience orgasms during sex, though the organ might take on a shape wildly different from the human variety. Female spotted hyenas, for example, give birth through their 7-inch-long (18 centimeters) clitoris that looks more like a pseudopenis.

So what sets humans apart? Human males don’t have spines on their penises as chimpanzees (humans’ closest living relatives) and other large primates do, and females don’t experience conspicuous swelling of the vagina when they are fertile and ready to mate, Schilthuizen said, giving two examples. But one could revert the argument and find features on any animal that make it special.

“When everything is bizarre, then nothing is bizarre,” Schilthuizen said. “We have a tendency to still use what is familiar as the norm, and we need to realize that very few animals, because of this diversity, can be directly compared to humans or other animals that we are familiar with. And at a certain point, I wouldn’t say you become blasé, but you become aware that this unpredictably is more characteristic of sexual evolution than anything else. When you realize this, you stop being surprised.”

At the same time, with more knowledge about the multitude of intimate arrangements in the animal world, the most mundane creatures seem more fascinating.

“Even the chipmunks and squirrels that you see in the park here — once you know that they have sperm plugs and asymmetric penises and things like that, you look at them in a very different way,” Schilthuizen said.