Byline: WALTER ELLIS
Can animals be gay? It has long been known that there are instances of apparent homosexuality in the animal kingdom, but until now these were thought to be so rare as to be insignificant.
Yet a new study has caused a furore in America and is shortly to do so here - it claims that homosexuality is commonplace in all kinds of animals and birds, in all habitats and across all continents.
The author of the study, Dr Bruce Bagemihl, is a biologist from the University of British Columbia. His big idea was to trawl through thousands of individual scientific papers, dealing with more than 450 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish, and to gather together all the observations of homosexual behaviour.
It has taken him ten years, but what he discovered astounded him: there were gay parrots from Mexico, gay black-rumped flamebacks from California, gay ostriches from Namibia, gay emus from Australia, gay fruit bats from the Indian Ocean islands, gay bighorn sheep from Canada . . .
even our own badgers seem to be gay in striking numbers.
When Dr Bagemihl plotted the research observations on a map of the world, he found that gay animals had been noted everywhere except in the Eastern Bloc, but that was only because few studies have been done there.
The Chicago Tribune called the resulting 750-page book 'a landmark in the literature of science'; the Internet magazine Salon said it was 'thrillingly dense with new ideas'; Nature called it 'extraordinary'.
If Bagemihl is right that homosexuality is commonplace among animals, birds, fish, even insects, then it turns upside-down the prevailing orthodoxy.
His results have been seized upon by those anxious to prove that homosexuality is a 'natural' phenomenon and by others who want to undermine Darwin's idea that procreation is the driving force of nature.
For others, Bagemihl's results show nothing more than that, when females are not available, the overwhelming urge to mate can cause short-term homosexual behaviour.
But the evidence is compelling and it seems there is virtually no species which does not have its 'gay community'.
In one piece of research, two female hedgehogs, looking for all the world like Mrs Tiggywinkle and her next-door neighbour, are observed engaged in behaviour more associated with the writings of Sappho.
Less eye-popping, perhaps, is the sight of a female aperea, or wild cavy, performing a 'rumba' in front of another female prior to an afternoon of wild abandon. What male baboons indulge in when they think they are
their flippers in the most flagrant way. Male elephants have been observed extending their trunk along a favoured fellow's back and nudging him playfully with their tusks, prior to making more overt advances.
Female elephants in captivity have been seen to pleasure each other with their trunks.
Bats - whose gay behaviour occurs while they are upside-down - celebrate their achievement with a 'squawking vocalisation'. Even butterflies have been observed engaged in homosexual acts.And there are further complexities. Male bighorn rams sometimes pretend they are females in order to win the favours of the leaders of the flock; and a pair of male 30-ton grey whales have been observed swimming, intertwined, through Vancouver Sound.
This has been vital campaign material.
Gay campaigners see it as confirmation that it is nature, and not nurture, which causes homosexuality - and argue that their way of life is therefore as valid in society as heterosexuality.
Equally, antigay groups argue that, if homosexuality is innate, gays cannot modify their behaviour and will always be likely to corrupt others.
Though Bagemihl warns that comparisons between animal and human …