Arxiu d'etiquetes: cassowary

Animal genitalia: birds and fish

The function of the reproductive system is apparently simple: to transmit the genes to the next generation. Why does it has so different and curious shapes in all kinds of animals? Would not  be enough with a simple sperm-emitting channel and a simple receiver? Find out in this post different shapes and reproductive strategies of birds and fish. If you want to learn about amphibia, reptile and mammal genitalia, click here.

ANIMALS’ SEX LIFE

Animals have different breeding strategies. In elementary school we learned that the fertilization can be:

  • External (outside the female’s body)
  • Internal (inside the female’s body)

And according to where the embryo develops the species are:

  • Oviparous: in an egg hatching outside the mother’s body (most fish, amphibians and reptiles)
  • Ovoviviparous: in an egg that hatch inside the mother’s body (sharks, vipers, boas…)
  • Viviparous: in a womb inside the body of the mother.

In high school we learned that there are strategists species:

  • r-strategists: they do not care for the offspring, which suffers a high mortality at birth. To compensate, they lay lots of eggs. They are usually short-live animals that quickly reach sexual maturity (invertebrates, fish, amphibians …)
  • K-strategists: they dedicate more energy to the care of the breeding, reason why they assure their survival and therefore the number of offspring in each laying or delivery is lower. Usually they are animals of longer life (dog, elephant, human …).

But if we analyze the reproduction in detail, it is not as simple as this. The sexual life of invertebrates is full of unlikely strategies to ensure fertilization, but we will talk about them another time and now we will focus on birds and fish.

THE EVOLUTION OF GENITALIA

The reproductive organs seem to have been the most diverse and most rapidly changed throughout evolution, giving rise to structures of almost every shape and size imaginable. If we believe that the only function is to give sperm, to receive it and to transport it to the ovule, we may be surprised by such diversity. In fact, the reproductive apparatus does much more than that and that is why the anatomy is so different between different animal groups.

Some insects, for example, use their penis for courtship, others use it to make sound and transmit vibrations to the female during mating. If the female likes the music, she will allow the male to take care of her offspring. Females also have adaptations to administer the sperm, like some flies, that can keep the sperm of different males in different receptacles of his reproductive apparatus.

Penis with bristles of the beetle Acanthoscelides obtectus. Source

The use of the penis in courtship and mating by the male and the administration of sperm in females would be two reasons that would explain the complexity of animal genitalia. The competition to ensure that a male’s sperm is actually the one that fertilizes all the female eggs would be another, with strategies as radical as plugging the ducts of the female once inseminated so that no other male can access it.

We will focus on this article on the genitals of fish and birds, do not miss the following post on amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

FISH GENITALIA

Although in most fish the fertilization is external, some have structures or pseudopenises to put the sperm inside the female.

SHARKS AND RAYS

They have the pelvic fins modified into two appendages called pterigopods or claspers, with which they introduce the sperm into the female.

Male shark (left) and female shark (right). Source

During copulation only one is used, which is filled with water thanks to a structure called siphon to expel it under pressure mixed with the sperm. According to the species, the young can be born from the mother’s body or from an egg.

Birth of a shark and fertilized egg. Source

POECIILIDAE FISH

Fish of the family Poeciliidae (guppys, mollys, platys, xhipos…), well known in aquarism, have the anal fin modified in a copulatory structure called gonopodium. They do not lay eggs, but the offspring are born directly from the mother’s body.

Male and female guppy. Source

PRIAPIUM FISH

It is a family of fish (Phallostethidae) that present the copulatory organ under the head. They mate face to face with the female, a thing almost unique in animals that live underwater. With the priapium they are anchored to the female and fertilize the eggs internally for a longer time than usual in other species.

Phallostethus cuulong male, discovered in Vietnam.. Source

Other curiosities in fish are possession of both sexes (hermaphroditism) or sex change, as in clown fish.

LOPHIIFORMES FISH

The best known representative of the Lophiiformes is the monkfish. In this order of fish, males are much smaller than females and they latch to females with their teeth, because of the difficulty of finding a mate in the abyssal bottoms. As time passes by, the male is physically fused to the female. He loses its eyes and its internal organs, except the testicles. A female may have six or more males (pairs of testicles) fused in her body.

Lophiiforme with a fused male. Source

BIRD GENITALIA

Most bird species (97%) do not have a penis and fertilization is performed with cloaca-cloaca contact (cloacal kiss, or cloacal apposition), a conduit that is used both as a reproductive and excretory system.

Left: urogenital apparatus of the male: F) testis, B) vas deferens, A) kidney, E) ureter, C) urodeum of the sewer. Right: urogenital apparatus of the female: A) ovary with mature follicle, F) infundibulum, E) oviduct, B) kidney, C) ureter, D) cloacal urodeum.Source

There are different hypotheses by which birds are believed to have lost their penis during evolution (since their reptilian ancestors did have it): to lighten the weight during flight, to avoid infections, by chance during the evolutionary process or to the females had better control over whom to reproduce. It seems that the latter would be the most accepted, since for example ducks fly long distances and have large and heavy penises.

But some birds do have a penis, which unlike mammals and reptiles, goes into erection by filling it with lymph, not blood.

WATERFOWL GENITALIA

Ducks, geese and swans are among the few birds that have a penis. The vagina of the ducks is shaped like a spiral clockwise, so when the male penetrates the female with his penis also spiral counterclockwise, if she is not interested flexes his vaginal muscles and penis leaves her body.

Vagina (left) and penis (right) of Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).Source

The vertebrate with the longest penis in proportion to its body is precisely a duck, the Argentine diving duck (Oxyura vittata). He keeps it rolled up inside, but in erection he can be twice as long (42.5 cm) as his body (20 cm).

Oxyura vittata male with penis out. Unknown author

Duck penises, in addition to their different sizes and curvatures, can be smooth or have spines or furrows. This variability is due to the competitive pressure to overcome the females’ vagina. Both genitals are a clear example of coevolution. If you want to know more about coevolution visit this post.

Vaginas with blind ducts, penises with spines to extract sperm from previous copulations… ducks have a real “war” for reproductive control. In monogamous species such as geese and swans, the reproductive apparatus is not so complex, but in more promiscuous species, such as ducks, they are more complex and with longer penises so that it can be guaranteed that the male who has fertilized the eggs is the one who will take care of the chicks.

RED-BILLED BUFFALO WEAVER GENITALIA

This African passerine (Bubalornis niger) has a pseudopenis 1.5 cm long. It does not have blood vessels nor spermatozoa, reason why apparently its function is to give pleasure to the female and to favor the attraction of the male. Males in colonies have longer pseudopenises than those living alone, so the evolution of this appendix could also be explained by male-male competition.

Red-billed buffalo weaver. Photo by Reg Tee

OSTRICHES AND RELATIVES

African ostriches (Sthrutio camelus) are from the Ratites family, which also includes kiwis, rheas (American ostriches), tinamous, emus and cassowaries. All of them have a penis, and except for tinamu, they are running birds.

Ostriches about to mate. Source

The genitalia of the cassowary are really very peculiar. We have already discovered in this post how exceptional this animal is. Both sexes have a phallic appendage, but it is not connected to any reproductive organ. In the case of males, it is invaginated in a sort of “vaginal cavity”. At the moment of the copulation, it comes out (as if we turned out the finger of a glove), but the sperm leaves the cloaca, that is, from the base of this pseudopenis, not from the tip. In the case of females, the phallic appendage (sometimes referred to as clitoris) is a little smaller than in males.

Cassowaries mating. You can watch the video here

These male-female characteristics have given rise to rituals and beliefs in the folklore of New Guinea. They consider the cassowary an androgynous creature of mixed genders, therefore powerful because they have the attributes of both sexes. The remote Bimin-Kuskusmin tribe (Central New Guinea) celebrates rituals where intersexual people are considered representatives of these animals, so they are revered and powerful. On the other hand, Mianmin people tells stories about a human woman with a penis that became a cassowary.

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REFERENCES

Anuncis

Meet present velociraptors

There are some stories about eagles who kidnap children, movies about murderer birds… But it really exist a bird which can kill a person? Are birds of prey the most dangerous birds? Keep reading to find out more.

THE CASSOWARY

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most dangerous bird in the world is the cassowary. Cassowaries (family Casuariidae), like the emu (with whom it is related) and the ostrich, are flightless birds and good runners (up to 50 km/h). They are also good swimmers and can jump up to almost 2 meters. They live in New Guinea, north of Australia (Queensland) and neighboring islands (Ceram, Aru).

Casuario (casuarius unnapendiculatus). Foto de Quartl
Northern cassowary (Casuarius unnapendiculatus). Photo by Quartl

There are three species: the Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius), the Dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti) and the Northern cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus). The largest of all is the Sourthern cassowary, in which we will focus in this article. Its name comes from Papua and means “horned head”.

Besides the size (1.80 m tall and weighing 70 kg, females are larger than males), highlighting the Southern cassowary is their blue and red neck, plucked, with two hanging pieces of skin (wattles), along with a casque that crowns the head, which is higher in the female. This casque is made up of trabecular bone (spongy bone) covered with hard skin (keratinized), which helps make their way through the dense vegetation of the rainforest where they live or for sexual attraction. It can also be a sign of the age, health and status of the animal respect their peers. It is estimated that they can live up to 12 to 19 years in the wild.

Primer plano de un casuario. Foto de Nick Hobgood.
Foreground of a Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius). Photo by Nick Hobgood.

The plumage is black, shiny and loose, giving it an aspect like hair. The tips are sharp and used as a defense. But the real danger of the cassowary falls upon its legs and feet, as one of its three fingers has a claw of about 10-12 cm long.

pies, peus, garra, uña, casuario, feet, foot, cassowary
Cassowary feet, in which can be seen its inner finger modified as a powerful claw. Photo by Christian Ziegler

DIET

The cassowary feeds mainly on fruits in the ground, which are swallowed whole. This makes them important seed dispersers, up to 70 different species. Their diet is completed with invertebrates such as insects, small vertebrates and fungi.

quandong, cassowary, eating, fruit
Cassowary eating quandongs, one of its favorite fruits. Photo by Christian Ziegler

REPRODUCTION

Cassowaries are birds of solitary habits, they meet only in breeding season (June to October). The female is dominant over the male and can mate with several males, putting different clutches on the floor.

cassowary, eggs, huevos, casuario, ous, casuari
Cassowary eggs are green coloured. Foto de Christian Ziegler

The males are responsible for incubating the eggs (4-8) for 50 days and take care of the chicks up to one year and four months. These have a plumage with brown, black and white stripes, they turn brown at 5 months of age. The final color and helmet appear when they are between 2 -4 years old.

casuario, pollitos, chicks, cassowary, casuari, pollets, iphone photo
Cassowary with its chicks. Photo by Kaisa Breeden

BEHAVIOUR

They are quiet and peaceful but highly territorial birds. When disturbed or threatened, they do not hesitate to violently attack with their powerful legs and beak. They attack like it is believed Velociraptors did: cassowaries make big jumps and kick their opponents eviscerating them with their powerful claw as if it were a dagger, and causing internal injuries because of blows. The cassowary has killed at least two people in Australia (2009 data) and probably some more that has not been documented in native populations. There have also been cases of bone fractures in people, such as ribs, legs …

In this video you can see how a cassowary attacks:

CONSERVATION AND THREATS

Although they are not dangerous to humans unless they are bothered, the main threat cassowaries suffer is the destruction of their habitat (replacement of the forest by cultivated fields) and forest fragmentation, which prevents access to food and other reproductive groups. There are also frequent car accidents in Australia and attacks of domestic dogs to cassowary chicks. Finally they are also victims of uncontrolled hunting in the area of New Guinea.

Australia, señal de tráfico, casuario, cape tribulation, cassowary, traffic signal
Traffic signal in Cape Tribulation, Australia, warning of the presence  of cassowaries. Photo by Mireia Querol

The Southern cassowary is classified as Vulnerable in the UICN Red List as well as the Northern cassowary. The dwarf cassowary is near threatened. Cassowaries in Australia live in protected areas, and there are also specific conservation plans by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. There are no reliable population data in New Guinea.

As we have seen, the cassowary is a spectacular bird that arouse great respect but is in danger. We encourage you to leave your comments and your experiences about it if you have traveled to their habitat and have been lucky enough to see one in the wild.

REFERENCES

 MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY