Category Archives: animal sexuality

New Scientist: Fish that change sex – and back again

At  New Scientist, “Zoologger” has a post up on the transsexual abilities of the hawkfish (species Cirrhitichthys falco), which is found off Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan. As the post notes, transitioning in fish occurs in many species – but this one reverses the process. (Even this ability is not unique though – see Joan Roughgarden, “ Evolution’s Rainbow  “).

Transgender fish perform reverse sex flip

When it comes to selecting mates, hawkfish keep their options open. The flamboyantly coloured reef dwellers start life as females but can transform into males after maturing. Many marine animals do this, but these fickle fish have a rare trick up their fins: they can change back when the situation suits.

Tatsuru Kadota and colleagues from Hiroshima University in Higashi-Hiroshima, Japan, have observed reverse sex changes in wild hawkfish for the first time in the subtropical reefs around Kuchino-Erabu Island in southern Japan.

Hawkfish live in harems, with one dominant male mating with several females. Kadota’s team studied 29 hawkfish and found that when it comes to sex change, the size of the harem matters.

If a male hawkfish took on many females, one of the two largest females would change sex and take over half of the harem, mating as a male. Conversely, if that new male hawkfish lost a few females to other harems and was challenged by a larger male, it reverted to mating as a female, instead of wasting precious energy fighting a losing battle. “The ability to undergo bidirectional sex change maximises an individual’s reproductive value,” Kadota says.

– read the full article at  Zoologger /New Scientist,06 January 2012 .

Footnote:

A reader, Mario, has shared a link to a fascinating story about a domestic hen that transitioned to a cockerel, after an injury. I’ve known about transitioning in fish species for years, but this is the first time I’ve come across an instance in birds.

Thanks, Mario.

Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity

Long, John A:The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex

Long, John A: Hung Like an Argentine Duck: A Journey Back in Time to the Origins of Sexual Intimacy

Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

 

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Penguin (Gay) Parenting: Lessons for Gay Adoption

A few months ago, the Toronto Zoo was in the news, taking flack for a decision to separate two male penguins who had formed a pair bond.

In China, the authorities at a zoo in northern China have taken the opposite approach.  When they saw that a male pair had been attempting to steal eggs, they took the obvious, rational, decision. They identified a chick in need of parents, and set up an adoption.

While zookeepers at the Toronto Zoo were quick to separate Buddy and Pedro for mating purposes, keepers at Harbin Polar Land embraced their eccentric penguins by not only giving them a same-sex wedding ceremony worthy of Leslie Knope but also providing them with their very own baby chick to care for.
Adam and Steve had a history of stealing eggs from more-traditional couples during hatching season. So when keepers noticed a mother of recently hatched twins struggling with her parenting duties, they decided to give Adam and Steve the baby they were looking for.
While it might seem, well, different for a penguin chick to have two male parents, in fact, all penguins are known to have natural instincts for parenting, as males and females equally share in the responsibility to incubate and care for their chicks, before and after they’re born. For this reason, keepers at Harbin Polar Land  
Read morenewsfeed.time.com
Ignore the “wedding” – that’s just an obvious, gimmicky PR stunt. There are more important lessons here.

First, there is the simple fact that same – sex pairing and sexual behaviours are common in all branches of the animal kingdom. The keepers at Toronto Zoo justified their decision by arguing that the two males had paired only because their were no females available, but this common explanation for animal homosexuality is false. The published scientific research makes it clear that while animal same – sex behaviour may be more common in the artificial conditions of captivity, it also occurs widely in purely natural conditions. (For some species, and for some animals, it may be more common than heterosexual mating).

The parenting impulse is common to all species, and is not restricted to opposite – sex couples. The Chinese penguins’ attempts to steal eggs has been widely observed among same – sex bird pairs of many species, just as many human couples, of any sexual orientation, may seek to adopt when they are unable to conceive themselves.
The Chinese zookeepers  “are confident that Adam and Steve’s chick will grow up to be just like its penguin peers”. They have good reason to be. The empirical evidence from the animal world is that the parenting abilities and success rates for same – sex couples are no worse than for opposite – sex couples, and sometimes better: exactly the same as the findings from empirical research on human gay and lesbian parents.
The commonly repeated argument around gay adoption that it should not be about the equal rights of gay parents, but about the best interests of the child, is sound. Only the usual conclusion is false. The best interests of the child require that s/he be placed with the best available adoptive parents, who just might happen to be a same-sex couple.
In northern China, one penguin chick’s mother was struggling to raise it. The best available adoptive parents were the pair named by the keepers Adam and Steve. Lucky chick, to have found suitable adoptive parents.
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The Saga of the Toronto Gay Penguins

In a bizarre move, a zoo is splitting up a male pair, to force them to breed.

Queer Politics for the Birds: The Saga of the Gay Penguins

Toronto’s zoo is splitting up a pair of same-gender penguins. These Happy Feet males, Pedro and Buddy — jokingly referred to as “Brokeback Iceberg” — have been nesting with each other for a year.
The reason for the boys’ split-up, a zoo official says, is because African penguins are an endangered species.
The pair has what’s known as a “social bond,” but it’s not necessarily a “sexual bond,” Tom Mason, the zoo’s curator of birds and invertebrates told the Associated Press.
“Penguins are so social they need that…company. And the group they came from was a bachelor group waiting for a chance to be paired up with females,” Mason stated. “They had paired up there, they came to us already paired, and it’s our job to be matchmakers to get them to go with some females.” 
The argument they have used to justify this, is the old one that they aren’t “really” queer, just doing it in the absence of females. This is nothing more than homophobia directed at the animal world, used to avoid facing the fact that sexual activities between members of the same biological sex are commonplace in nature – for some species, and for some individual animals, more common than the heterosexual kind.

Bruce Bagemihl, in Biological Exuberance, has described this avoidance strategy, and several others, in his book “Biological Exuberance” – together with accounts of the extensive scientific evidence now emerging to rebut them.

As scientists, the curators at Toronto zoo really should know better.

Books:

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Tough Survivors: Gender Fluid Eels

To rice farmers and agricultural economists, the rice paddy eel is a pest, presenting an indirect threat to rice crops. To me, it’s yet another example of the remarkable gender and sexual diversity of the natural world – and one which is a real tough survivor.

REFLECTING nature’s remarkable diversity, the rice paddy eel is both hermaphrodite and transgender.
All the young start as females; some become masculine as they mature. When female densities are low, some of the male eels become transgender, turning into the opposite sex again.
The process, which takes up to a year, allows the replenishment of female populations. The greater the proportion of females in the eel population, the greater the reproduction rate.
This remarkable agility to adapt, and without natural predators, allows the paddy eel to multiply fast.
A rice paddy eel may grow as long as 3 feet to 4 feet and weigh as much as half a kilogram. As a voracious predator, its rapid spread threatens fishes, frogs, snails, worms and aquatic insects.
It survives harsh environments as well, from fresh and brackish to saline conditions and even cold temperatures well below freezing.
It can survive for weeks without food and, by burrowing in moist ground, can live for long periods without water.
When not using gills underwater, the rice paddy eel gets a fourth of its oxygen needs from the air – through the skin.”

Bisexual squid ‘can’t tell mates apart’ in dark waters – Telegraph

“An 18-year study of the Octopoteuthis deletron, a little-known squid which dwells a depth of 400 to 800m, found that males mate as often with their own gender as they do with females.
The difference between the sexes is so slight and meetings with fellow squid so rare that the amorous males are either unaware or unconcerned whether the object of their attention is female or not, US-based researchers said.
There is little light in the depths where the squid reside and the darkness of the water “cannot aid much in recognising potential mates,” they added.
Writing in the Royal Society Biology Letters journal, the scientists said the squid only have a single, brief reproductive period during their short lifespan and will mate with any partner they meet during this time regardless of its gender.”
-read more at The Telegraph
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Aquinas, "Nature" – and Sex.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law are often trotted out by the rule-book Catholics alongside the half-dozen clobber texts as a supposed justification for denying respect and equality to sexual minorities. I have absolutely no expertise in Thomist theology, but was intrigued by this observation, in a longer article (“The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition”), at the Washington Post.
Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.” Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority (emphasis added).

There are clear echoes of this in the modern world, where so many religious reactionaries insist on ignoring the clear findings of science, inserting instead their own established prejudice. If we accept Aquinas’  thesis that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God”, the implications for Catholic sexual ethics are profound. The first of these would have to be a recognition that same-sex attraction is tu entirely natural and non-pathological dominant sexuality for a small but distinct minority of people, and  a smaller part of the sexual make-up of many more. This much is familiar, as is the knowledge that many animals (possibly even all or most mammals, but also birds, reptiles and insects) also practice degrees of homosexual activity.

No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphids. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.
But even more important, and not nearly as well-known, are the findings from science that natural sexual activity, as observed in the animal kingdom, is not after all solely geared to procreation. This has been the traditional assumption, but thanks to empirical evidence, we now know better. In several animal species, an extraordinary range of non-procreative sexual activities occur.
  • In some animals, sexual intercourse begins as much as a year or two before physical maturity and the onset of fertility – and so with no prospect of procreation.
  • Some species practice anal intercourse. or conventional intercourse without ejaculation, or intercourse outside of the estrus period.
  • Many species engage in masturbation, alone, or with others of either sex. Where they lack hands they use alternative strategies.
Autoeroticism also occurs widely among animals, both male and female. A variety of creative techniques are used, including genital stimulation using the hand or front paw (primates, Lions), foot (Vampire Bats, primates), flipper (Walruses), or tail (Savanna Baboons), sometimes accompanied by stimulation of the nipples (Rhesus Macaques, Bonobos); auto-fellating or licking, sucking and/or nuzzling by a male of his own penis (Common Chimpanzees, Savanna Bonobos, Vervet Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Thinhorn Sheep, Bharal, Aovdad, Dwarf Cavies); stimulation of the penis by flipping or rubbing it against the belly or in its own sheath (White-tailed and Mule Deer, Zebras and Takhi); spontaneous ejaculations (Mountain Sheep, Warthogs, Spotted Hyenas); and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects (found in several primates and cetaceans)
-Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance
 
  • Dolphins engage in non-procreative sex that has no human counterpart. They use their partners’ blowholes as additional orifices available for penetration.
  • Some species practice oral sex – including oral self-pleasuring (“auto-fellatio”)

Animals of several species are documented as engaging in both autofellatio and oral sex. Auto-fellatio or oral sex in animals is documented in goats, primates, hyaenas, fruits bats and sheep


  • Remarkably, some primates even make their own sex toys, fashioning dildos out of liana vines, and masturbation aids from suitable fruits.
  • Chimpanzees and penguins have been found to engage in forms of prostitution, exchanging sexual favours for food (chimps) or pebbles used in nest-building (penguins).

The implications for sexual theology are profound.

To forestall the standard reaction to this argument, I am not arguing here that because these sexual practices are found in nature, they are therefore acceptable. Animals also engage in incest, intercourse with juveniles, and necrophilia – none of which I recommend. What I am suggesting, is that we must remove the argument from nature in deciding on sexual morality. Much of the traditional Catholic theology on sex derives from Aquinas’ concept of “natural law”, which he in turn derived ultimately from his reading of Aristotle. We now know conclusively that whatever his value as a philosopher, Aristotle has no value whatsoever as a natural scientist. By Aquinas’ own reasoning, to follow Aristotle’s mistakes about nature is to make mistakes about God. To be really true to the spirit of Aquinas, we must therefore reject his own conclusions about nature in the light of the scientific evidence, and find alternative sources on which to base our sexual ethics.
What other sources are there? Traditionally, these have been the Bible and the early Church fathers to go on. Modern Biblical scholars are finding that many of the traditional interpretations of Scripture on sexual matters are flawed, while the ascetic elevation of celibacy as a Christian ideal, and the accompanying disapproval of all sexual acts, was based on a belief in the parousia – an imminent second coming of Christ.
If the traditional sources are now shown to be flawed, what else is there? The example of Aquinas in fact, helps us here, but pointing to his commitment to studying the best scientists of his day. We too can learn (and the Vatican agrees) from the best scientists of our day, not in the field of animal behaviour, but in the modern discipline of human sexuality and related fields. The findings by these scientists are that sexuality is a fundamental part of our human make-up, that diverse orientations are entirely natural, that a healthy and active sexual life can contribute directly to both physical and mental health,  and that sexual expression serves many more purposes than simply procreation alone.
Probably the majority of Catholic theologians already accept this. It is time that the Vatican paid more than lip-service to its claim that we must take seriously the findings of natural and human sciences, and did so too.

Books:

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Lifting the lid on animal sex

 “In his new book Hung Like an Argentine Duck, Australian paleontologist Dr John Long aims to bring the weird and wonderful world of animal sexuality to the masses.
But there are also some interesting insights on human sexuality to be extrapolated from the book, challenging puritanical notions of what is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’: namely, that homosexuality is some kind of man-made choice, and that humans are the only species to indulge in sex for pleasure.”
Indeed, once you’ve read Long’s passsages about dildo-wielding porcupines, bat blow jobs and necrophiliac snakes, you may be inclined to think we’re one of the tamer species in the animal kingdom.
“There isn’t any facet of human sexual behaviour that doesn’t already exist in the animal kingdom — the whole gamut of human sexual preference exists in animals in one form or another,” Long animatedly explained to the Star Observer.
“I must admit, a lot of it surprised me. We’re still learning new things all the time. I mention in the book that echidnas regularly have gangbangs, with five males to one female — that research was only published last year.”
In animals, [homosexuality] seems to be more about kinship and bonding, and how those animals fit in with a wider group or community, as opposed to a one-on-one pairing.”
In other words, those arguing that homosexuality is an evolutionary dead end are taking too narrow a view, with evidence that homosexual animals provide vital caring and support roles in animal communities, free from the burden of their own offspring.
 

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