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From “Penis Fencing” To “Sperm Transference”: A Look At Homosexuality In The Animal Kingdom

There are plenty of documented examples of same-sex relations in the animal kingdom, but is it fair to call them gay? And if this behavior does reflect a genetic abnormality, what does that mean for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? If the goal for a species is to mate, why would a gay gene get passed on, lowering the rate of reproduction?

Those are the questions posed by the BBC Earth in a fascinating exploration of homosexual tendencies in species other than humans.

Here’s a look at what they observed:

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Japanese macaques

It is common among the females to bump and grind on each other, which scientists understand as a form of pleasure-seeking. The females enjoy more positions than the males — from the “double foot clasp mount” to the “jockey position” — so are they simply seeking out what makes them feel good? They’ll stare into each others eyes, which from our perspective looks rather intimate. Still, they’ll also mate with the males, so it isn’t quite proper to think of them as “lesbian macaques.”

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Fruit flies

For the first 30 minutes of a male fruit fly’s life, he will try to mate with any other fruit fly he can find — male or female. Eventually he’ll learn the smell of the female and focus his attention on them. So as far as evolution goes, the trial and error approach favors bisexuality until the males can distinguish the two sexes better.

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Flour beetles

Male flour beetles use an even stranger technique that can still be explained with evolution. They’ll go so far as to deposit sperm in other males, but when those receiving males then mate with a female, there is the possibility for sperm transference. So more homosexual mating, more offspring.

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Laysan albatross

These birds typically mate for life, and on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the population includes 31% of pairings of two unrelated females. They’ll still produce offspring — a male albatross will sneak off from his mate and fertilize the egg of one of the other females (which never happens in humans), and the female pair will raise the chick. Even here, researches note a subtle evolutionary advantage for the practice. The male albatrosses that mate outside their pairing are typically the strongest of the males, so their genes get passed down through the female/female pairings. Still, the albatrosses can’t be called “gay.” In populations where the male/female ratio is more even, females don’t choose to pair with other females.

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Bonobos

Did you know that our distant cousins, the bonobos, really like sex? Sexual activity between bonobos is referred to as the “bonobo handshake” (we’re pretty sure we’ve heard a similar term — “gay handshake” — thrown around after a few vodka sodas), and they take it any way they can get it: male/female, male/male, female/female. In addition to procreation, sex in bonobo communities is used as a way of fortifying social bonds. After two males fight, it’s common for them to engage in genital-to-genital touching called “penis fencing” (which we think would be a hit in the straight human world). But still, at most they can be described as bisexual.

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Domestic sheep

But then there are domestic sheep. Even when there are ample and fertile females around, about 8% of domestic sheep prefer the sexual company of other males. Neuroscientists in 1994 concluded that the hypothalamus (the part of the brain the controls the release of sex hormones) was smaller in the homosexual sheep. A 1991 study suggests a similar phenomenon in gay male humans. So how to explain this one in terms of Darwin’s Theory? Well, while it doesn’t benefit the homosexual sheep themselves, the relatives of those sheep may be reaping certain advantages. The same gene that results in a smaller hypothalamus in some males might make their female siblings more fertile. Still, this has only been observed in domestic sheep (not wild), and some scientists argue that because sheep have been intentionally bred to foster the most fertile females, the human intervention may have given rise to the “homosexual sheep.”

Conclusion? Humans seem to be the only wild animal population containing our understanding of “homosexual” members. But these studies show that species across the animal kingdom engage in sexual activity for far more reasons than procreation, be that pleasure or social connection. It’s that nuance that shatters (as if it needed any more shattering) the religious right’s view of sex as solely a means to produce offspring.

Turns out, as always, things are a bit more complicated.