When observing homosexual behavior in animals, are biologists too quick to explain the gay away?
Two years ago, public outcry occurred when the zookeepers at Toronto Zoo separated Buddy and Pedro, a ‘gay’ penguin couple. The African penguins had been together for years, but were split up in the hope that they would find a female mate and produce some offspring. A necessary evil, the zookeepers explained, as the African penguin is an endangered species.
Still, the public wasn’t having it. “God, can’t we even leave penguins alone without imposing hetero-BS values on them? Hope they don’t commit suicide”, ‘Jack M.’ wrote on website Towleroad.com. And on Queerty.com, ‘Shannon1981’ added “it wouldn’t work any better than it works with gay humans.”
It’s a phenomenon that frustrates many biologists – people attributing human qualities to animals in order to push their own ideological agendas. When it comes to homosexuality in animals, or ‘same-sex sexual behavior’, which is preferred by most researchers, few findings can be published without stirring up trouble. Yet although most biologists who study this topic refuse to draw any parallel between the animal kingdom and the human world, others simply cannot resist anthropomorphizing animal behavior to get their message out. So in the end, who’s to blame? And why do we care anyway?
Although biologists studying same-sex sex nowadays are a little annoyed by questions such as “Does this mean this penguin is gay?” or, also not uncommon, “Are you a homosexual?”- they are also the ones who led these misconceptions in the past. For centuries they conveniently left observations of homosexual behavior in animals out of their reports, afraid of what their peers might think of them. In 1991, primatologist Linda Wolfe stated: “[…] several (anonymous at their request) primatologists … have told me that they have observed both male and female homosexual behavior during field studies. They seemed reluctant to publish their data, however, either because they feared homophobic reactions (“my colleagues think I’m gay”) or because they lacked a framework for analysis (“I don’t know what it means”).
The ones who did dare to share their findings were quick to dismiss them as anomalies, or even openly condemned their own observations. Scientist and Antarctic explorer George Murray Levick, who was the first to witness an Adélie penguin male mounting another male in 1910, was particularly horrified. Once he returned to Britain, Murray Levick produced a paper about his findings which included a section on “acts of astonishing depravity”, as he deemed them. His paper was translated in ancient Greek so only his fellow researchers would know about the perversity he had seen.
Reframing Darwin’s flawless universe
In recent years, homosexuality in animals has become a legitimate research subject. In 2009, biologists Nathan Bailey and Marlene Zuk published a study reviewing all research on the topic. They found that “many thousands of instances of same-sex courtship, pair bonding and copulation have been observed in a wide range of species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, mollusks and nematodes.” Why did zoology finally come out of the closet? To start with, the topic of homosexuality in general had became less controversial. But the main reason was that biologists had found a way to explain same-sex sexual behavior within Darwin’s framework – their comfort zone. Animals might be a little gay, they argued, but only for the sake of evolution.
Animals might be a little gay, biologists argued, but only for the sake of evolution
For many species that live together in groups, this appears to be accurate. Male bottle-nose dolphins, for example, which are said to show one of the highest rates of same-sex sexual behavior, are known to penetrate each other’s genital slit with their beak and penis. They form long-term bonds with other males, sometimes for life, while their encounters with females are of a volatile nature. The reason for this type of behavior, according to Janet Mann, professor of biology and psychology, is rooted in evolution: by cooperating, two males can entice a single female and keep her from mating with other males, which increases their own chances of reproductive success.
But that isn’t the whole story. It seems that every bisexual species has its own personal reasons to play for both teams. According to a study from 2006, the male dung fly only has sex with another male to deny it access to the ladies. “The most sensible strategy for beating a competitor in the race to an arriving female would be to mount him and remain in situ for as long as possible”, writes author Ken Preston-Mafman.
It seems that every bisexual species has its own personal reasons to play for both teams
The Atlantic molly, a tropical fish species, also has a different motive: ‘flirting’ with other males attracts females. According to the researchers, female Atlantic mollies tend to choose males that they have seen mounting other females (mate choice copying), as mating for them signals reproductive fitness. So when males (in particular the smaller, subordinate ones) mate with other males, the females assume they have something to offer to them as well.
Yet it’s not just the males who team up to ensure the future of their kind. In 2008, biologist Lindsay Young published a paper revealing new facts about the Laysan albatross. This seabird, with its white body, dark-colored wings, and pale yellow beak, is one of the many species in which both sexes look similar, which was why researchers had always assumed all couples were male-female. Not so, Young observed: 31 percent of all the pairs in the colony she studied were female couples. How come? Probably because of something often described as ‘the prisoner effect’ – a surplus of males or females within a group, causing the members to engage in homosexual behavior. The albatross colony consisted of 69 percent females, making it impossible for each bird to find a mate of the opposite sex. Young found that breeding with another female leaves the offspring with a better chance of survival than breeding alone. So the emergence of ‘lesbian’ albatrosses might just be nature’s way to deal with shortcomings.
Still, some animals that engage in same-sex sex are solitary, meaning cooperative breeding or bonding is not the reason for their liaisons. Take the deep-sea squid, for example, lives around 600 meters deep in the Pacific Ocean, and was first outed in 2011. The so-called Octopotheutis deletron male, which in order to mate ejaculates a packet of sperm towards its love-interest, is not that picky. When observing their mating behavior, the researchers found that just as many males as females had been inseminated with sperm. Their conclusion: a male squid just takes what it can get. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid, though. “The animal […] is not mistaken to deposit sperm with another male,” Marlene Zuk explained in an article in the New York Times, “because somehow, the behavior works, or natural selection would have eradicated the behavior of the squid,” which it clearly has not since, as she puts it “we still have squid.”
Explaining the gay away
Considering the extensive selection of theories explaining homosexuality in animals it’s no wonder the debate reignites with each new addition to the list. Because no matter how elegantly each different case is shaped to fit Darwin’s theory of evolution, there are always those annoying parts of the puzzle that just don’t fit. Take the Kobus kob, a Sub-Saharan antelope, in which female same-sex behavior is very common. The females often mount each other, and even stroke each other’s genitals with their forelegs. There are plenty of available males around, so it’s not a matter of opting for second best. The ‘let’s-see-how-this-thing-works theory’ also doesn’t hold ground, as it’s not just the young who engage in same-sex sex. Having reviewed all the options, scientists simply have not found a convincing explanation yet. And the kob certainly isn’t the only species that doesn’t fit the profile.
“Human’s desire to watch animals is seldom, if ever, innocent”
Beyond these examples, it is also difficult for many people to accept that none of these stories can tell us anything about ourselves. As biologist Donna Haraway notes, “human’s desire to watch animals is seldom, if ever, innocent: instead it’s shaped by conscious and unconscious investments in making claims about human life.” We look at the animal kingdom to make sense of our world. People fighting for the extension of gay rights and acceptance might take comfort in assuming that homosexuality is ‘natural’ because animals express it too. Their opponents, on the other hand, point out that animals also eat their young; should that be tolerated in humans too, just because it’s ‘natural’? Making use of this kind of logic is understandable, most scientists say, yet not actually valid; Human homosexuality simply is not the same as animal homosexuality. What is more, ‘animal homosexuality’ in itself cannot be regarded a single study subject, as there clearly is no unified theory available to explain it all. Still, biologists do seem to agree on one thing: whatever the reasons animals of the same sex may have to hump one another – confusion, opportunism or poor night vision – human-like love isn’t one of them. Not even for celebrity penguin couple Buddy and Pedro.
Bailey, N., & Zuk, M. (2009). Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24 (8), 439-446 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.014
Gorman, J. ‘Amorous Squid Seeks Partner: Any Sex Will Do?’ The New York Times, 2011
Preston-Mafham, K. (2006). Post-mounting courtship and the neutralizing of male competitors through “homosexual” mountings in the fly Hydromyza livens F. (Diptera : Scatophagidea) Journal of Natural History
Terry, J. (2000). “UNNATURAL ACTS” IN NATURE: The Scientific Fascination with Queer Animals GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 6 (2), 151-193 DOI: 10.1215/10642684-6-2-151
Young, L., Zaun, B.J., VanderWerf, E.A. ‘Successful same-sex pairing in Laysan albatross’. Biology Letters, 2008
Sommer, V., Vasey, P.L. (2006) Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
The original article appeared in the January/February magazine issue Love Hurts