Junk science

Mating Ladybirds

Birds do it, beetles do it … (Flickr: Henry Burrows)

Last spring, the journal Current Biology published a report describing something new under the entomological sun: A genus of tiny cave-dwelling insects, dubbed Neotrogla, in which females, not males, have penises.

Or, rather, the females have a thing that they stick inside the males. Once it’s in there, that thing inflates and latches into the male with tiny barbs, binding the couple together in a copulation lasting two to three days, while the thing collects a packet containing sperm and a whole lot of (potentially) nutritious protein. What to call the females’ thing seems to have puzzled even the scientists who described it. In the text of their paper, they call it a gynosome (literally, a “female body”); but in the title, it’s a “female penis.”

This synonymy went from confusing to controversial the moment it hit the popular science press, which almost uniformly chose to go penis-first. “Female insect uses spiky penis to take charge” read the headline in the prestigious journal Nature. “Meet the female insect with giant PENIS whose steamy sex sessions last 70 HOURS,” said the Daily Mirror, caps-locked emphasis sic. Most of the stories, even the Mirror’s, got around to using the word “gynosome” eventually, and many went into more detail about how the organ in question wasn’t really a penis as we know it. LiveScience noted it was “a complex organ composed of muscles, ducts, membranes and spikes,” before adding that its size, relative to the body of a Neotrogla female, was “the equivalent of a man who is 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 meters) tall having a penis about 9.8 inches (24.9 centimeters) long.”

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The Secret Life of Bill Nye

Bill-Nye-4h

Bill Nye, formally the Science Guy, now advocate for science education everywhere, is the subject of an upcoming documentary.

And while we look at how the man in the bow tie grew up to be the scientist we all know and love, we need to take a moment to appreciate his mother.

“My mom was a big believer in women doing everything,” Nye said in a new clip from Structure Film’s upcoming documentary. She worked on code breaking during World War II, and was recruited to help decrypt the Enigma code (featured in the recent movie The Imitation Game), at a time when women were even less welcome in STEM careers than we are now.

Want to know more about Bill Nye (I do), then fund the Kickstarter here.

Or read more about him over here.

Note: While I recognize that this post isn’t about biology explicitly, I’m excited that science is mainstream enough to be featured frequently on buzzfeed. I’m also in favor of supporting advocates of science, and as a general biology blog, we want to support communicating science better with the general public. Like my man Bill Nye does.

Additionally, we’re all about promoting women in science on Nothing In Biology. Enjoy.