The University’s personal celebrity under the eye of a biologist: the science behind Longboi

By Natalia Kubala

Introduction

If you are part of the University of York and don’t know who the longest of all ducks is, here is a brief introduction. Longboi is a duck residing on Campus West and is a hybrid of a typical mallard duck and an Indian Runner duck. He is beloved by all,  from students, and staff to visitors of the University. He is easy to spot due to his distinctive Indian Runner shape and size;  long neck, tall posture, and characteristic run. But there are questions surrounding whether this hybrid has biological advantages over his short-statured companions?

Indian Runner Ducks: their history and biology

You have most likely seen a traditional mallard duck, the males have an indicative green head. However, you might not be so familiar with the Indian Runner. Its history can be traced back to the East Indies however there is no evidence that they are actually from India. They are domestic ducks that evolved from a wild mallard, however, there is evidence this species came from human selection rather than natural selection. The importance of this can provide a basis that there was a selection pressure for commercial reasons on the ducks. This could be the reason why cross-breeding became so common amongst this species. As a result of such high levels of breeding with other species, the pure breed Indian runner is practically extinct in Britain.

Indian Runner Ducks are rather easy to spot due to their peculiar appearance. Unlike most ducks, they stand tall, with an erect posture.

They have long, slender necks and beaks and wedge-shaped heads that are shallower than other species. Unlike most ducks that move around by waddling, as the name would suggest, the Indian Runners run. They take bigger steps meaning they can move a lot faster than some other species, which is called a “quickstep”. These phenotypes are due to genetic differences from most ducks which caused a unique bone structure and blood proteins. A study in 2010 by Keri H. Franco et al. found the Indian Runner had significantly higher levels of certain elements and enzymes in the serum compared to the plasma of their blood when tested with other species of duck. Similarly to other ducks, Longboi and other Indian Runners are able to swim as well as fly, however, Indian Runners are known to fly less due to their running abilities.

Evolutionary advantage?

The main question of my article is whether Longboi is better off than other waterfowl on campus. This cannot be tested without experimental data. However, the simplest experiment can be done by yourself if you ever see it! Competition amongst species is natural and concerns many factors. The success of this competition is determined by the evolutionary advantages of an individual. If you ever stumble across Longboi and its fellow duck friends, you can test it by feeding (remember no bread!). Due to the length of its neck, it can reach much higher than other ducks giving it an advantage. The upright posture of an Indian Runner causes Longboi to have much more strength in its palmates (duck feet) due to a pelvic girdle situated towards the tail region. I have myself seen him do a little hop for food which other ducks are unable to do. 

The “running” phenomenon is also rather an advantage when chasing away competition, running for food, or running away from a predator. The ducks’ long, slim body literally gives it better aerodynamics to run. Mallards and other duck species have mechanical constraints of shorter legs and short stature. Therefore the parametric of an Indian Runner duck that Longboi has gives it a natural kinematic advantage. Naturally, we will never know how likely Longboi is able to outcompete other species unless we have proper experimental evidence.

Longboi on Campus West (photo taken by author, Natalia Kubala)

Hybridisation and reproduction

The question most people are dying to know; can Longboi have babies? As many of you will know, many hybrids are sterile due to the parents of the offspring having a different number of chromosomes. If Longboi is really as advantageous as I say, its main goal should be to pass on its genes to an offspring for a new generation of Longbois. But is the duck sterile? That would all depend on the phylogeny of the Mallard and the Runner Duck. As I said previously, Indian Runners have developed from the human selection on Mallards. Therefore they both share a fairly recent common ancestor and there is probably quite a lot of phylogenetic overlap. This can signify that the morphology of their chromosomes is similar. Indian Runners are also one of the most fertile breeds of duck. A study by Pablo L. Tubaro and Dario A. Lijtmaer from 2002 concluded “In particular, we found both an excess of hybrid crosses among closely related species and a scarcity among distantly related species.” So to answer that question, yes we could potentially see baby Longbois running around at some point in the future.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is no experimental data on Longboi specifically however different studies of both Mallards, Indian Runners and other breeds of duck give us an indication of the advantages and disadvantages these animals face. Waterfowl that live on Campus have a different environment than ducks that live in the wild.

“Longboi is a fantastic member of the University’s diverse and dynamic wildlife and deserves his celebrity status as a rare member of the Indian Runner Duck community.”

I think in this article I have uncovered some of the evolutionary science and genetics behind our own unique duck hybrid.

Longboi featuring a Canada Goose in the background (photo taken by author, Natalia Kubala).

References

Anick Abourachid C.N.R.S.-U.M.R. 8570, Laboratoire d′Anatomie Comparée, Equipe Locomotion Animale, Muséum National d′Histoire Naturelle de Paris, 55, rue Buffon, F-75005 Paris, France

Cantú-Paz, E. Migration Policies, Selection Pressure, and Parallel Evolutionary Algorithms. Journal of Heuristics 7, 311–334 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011375326814

Keri H. Franco, John P. Hoover, Kay A. Backues, Mark E. Payton, Comparison of Biochemical Values of Paired Serum and Plasma Samples from American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber), Indian Runner Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), and Hyacinth Macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, Volume 19, Issue 2, 2010, Pages 169-176, ISSN 1557-5063, https://doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2010.06.003.

Holderread, Dave (2001). Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. North Adams, MA, USA: Storey Publishing. pp. 47, 48, 49, 50.

Mott C, L, Lockhart L, H, Rigdon R, H: Chromosomes of the sterile hybrid duck. Cytogenet Genome Res 1968;7:403-412. doi: 10.1159/

Pablo L. Tubaro, Dario A. Lijtmaer, Hybridization patterns and the evolution of reproductive isolation in ducks, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 77, Issue 2, October 2002, Pages 193–200, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1095-8312.2002.00096.x000130001

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