SO CAN ANIMALS REALLY BE GAY? Lesbian Albatrosses, Gay Giraffes and Some Very Open-Minded Penguins -the New Research Ruffling Feathers among Wildlife Experts

Daily Mail (London), May 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

SO CAN ANIMALS REALLY BE GAY? Lesbian Albatrosses, Gay Giraffes and Some Very Open-Minded Penguins -the New Research Ruffling Feathers among Wildlife Experts


Byline: by Zoe Brennan

AS THE two birds gently entwine their heads, their soft, downy necks form a heart shape. They are, quite literally, a pair of love birds -- Laysan albatrosses, reunited after months apart.

These seabirds, with a seven-foot wingspan and curved yellow beaks, soar over the oceans as far north as Alaska every November, after six months alone, before meeting at Kaena Point.

This rocky outcrop overlooking the Pacific in Oahu, Hawaii, is their ancestral breeding ground. It is here they return to mate and put on the world's greatest display of monogamy.

Albatrosses can live until they are 70 years old and it's said they make a lifelong commitment to one bird. They incubate their egg together for 65 days, taking turns to find food.

Indeed, former American first lady Laura Bush once hailed the bird as a mascot for pro-family Republicans. But a new study has emerged -- and it is sure to shock Mrs Bush.

For all is not how it seems on Kaena Point. A biologist studying the 120-strong albatross colony at the University of Hawaii has ruffled quite a few feathers with her extraordinary discovery. She has found that many of the albatrosses appear to be, well... gay.

Lindsay Young, who has worked on Oahu since 2003, has discovered that a third of the pairs at Kaena Point consist of two female birds.

The albatrosses have previously pulled the wool over conservationists' eyes with their cosy cuddling -- as the two sexes look identical.

According to Young, who used DNA analysis to genetically test the birds' gender, some of the female pairs have been together for up to 19 years -- as far back as biologists' data extends.

In that time, these same-sex partnerships raised dozens of chicks. It seems the females choose a male to father their chicks, but then return to their nests to incubate them with their 'wives'.

'This colony is literally the largest proportion of... I don't know what the correct term is -- "homosexual animals?" -- in the world,' says Young.

Her revelations turn our knowledge of the animal kingdom upside down and begs the question: can animals be gay?' In fact, same-sex sexual activity has been recorded in more than 450 species from flamingos to bison, beetles to warthogs, according to Jon Mooallem, who has written in The New York Times on the subject.

He says: 'A female koala might force herself on another female, while male Amazon River dolphins have been known to get amorous.' Male orangutangs are also rather open-minded.

SUCH observations have been seen by scientists as an inconvenience, Mooallem says -- usually tacked onto research papers as a curiosity. 'Biologists tried to explain what they'd seen as an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where an animal's sexual behaviour is geared toward reproducing.' Gay-rights campaigners have seized on evidence of animal homosexuality as proof that same-sex couples are a natural occurrence.

In his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality And Natural Diversity, Bruce Bagemihl documents cases of homosexual animals.

A gay biologist at the University of Wisconsin in the U.S., he argues against 'heterosexist bias', where researchers presume animals are heterosexual.

He claims homosexual behaviour has been observed in 1,500 species, and well-documented in 500 of these.

His examples come from species as diverse as the giraffe, the butterfly and the manatee -- large marine mammals, who engage in a huge, excitable, and same sex, frenzy. But zoologist Petter Bockman, an expert on the subject at the University of Oslo, dismisses those who draw political implications from the scientific findings.

He says: 'If you ask: "Can animals be gay?" The short answer is: "Yes." "Gay" is a human word, however, so we prefer to use the word 'homosexual' for animals.

'Sexuality is not just about making babies, it is also about making the flock work. …

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