Get ready for rainbow flags and parades! June is pride month.
So what is pride month? For the month of June people celebrate the history and differences of LGBTQ+ people. Whilst people are waving their rainbow flags in support of the LGBTQ community, little do people know that there are homosexual occurrences found throughout nature!
It is estimated that same sex behaviour ranging from co-parenting to sexual activity is found in around 1000-1500 species including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. One of the more well known species for showing this co-parenting behaviour are penguins, even here at Wingham we had 2 male Humboldt penguins Jumbs and Kermit who paired up and raised an egg together! As far as the research shows, prejudice against the animals (in their respective groups) that exhibit same sex behaviour is low and thus far discrimination against these minorities appears to be a uniquely human trait.
As mentioned above this same sex behaviour is found in many different species, this includes primates. Homosexuality has been observed in a wide range of primates, whether it is from new world monkeys (Central to South America) such as squirrel monkeys and capuchins to old world monkeys (Africa and Asia) and apes (bonobos, chimps, gorillas). It is more frequently found in Bonobos (Pan paniscus) which are one of our close living relatives along with chimpanzees. It is observed that the majority of bonobo populations are actually bisexual and around 60% of pairings are female-female or male-male interactions. Bonobos exhibit a huge display of same sex behaviours, including greetings, grooming and social bonding.
Another species is the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), females will exhibit a preference to other females over male partners and will form intense bonds. Not only is this common in different species of macaque it is actually the norm, and the majority of observations show that they will sleep, groom, forage together and also defend themselves from rival troops.
New research is also being carried out on spider monkey groups in captivity where observations have been carried out on same sex male interactions which is usually uncommon for that species.
Functions in evolution
On the face of it, homosexuality and same sex behaviour by these animals sounds like a really bad idea in terms of evolution. In simpler terms, natural selection is passing on your genes to the next generation, anything that is not preferable in nature then it will simply disappear over time. So any genes that make animals more likely to engage in same sex behaviour will be less likely to pass on their genes, so we should be seeing homosexuality dying out over time right? Well evidently not! Not only is it common in a massive range of primates but it is a regular occurrence!
So why do these animals display these behaviours? There are some answers as to why they may exhibit these traits. One of the main reasons for same sex interactions in animals will be dominance displays and will occur in both sexes, so this will be a dominant male or female displaying or pairing with the same sex to establish dominance over the other, but this isn’t inherently long term and will usually end fairly quickly.
Another suggestion will be to strengthen social bonds in social primates, a strong bond with another individual will increase their likelihood of surviving and therefore in the long term, the group benefits. Although not greatly researched it cannot be ruled out that some animals prefer same sex pairings as opposed to heterosexual pairings and will seek out interactions with members of the same sex (some examples in lions, giraffes and as mentioned above Japanese macaques).
Science has shown us that homosexuality is not rare but is actually very common in the animal kingdom and is not a threat to evolution, and in some cases a benefit to certain animal groups. There is room for homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality in nature, everything is natural! The study of same sex relations in animals is still very under researched and is still considered a taboo in the scientific community but with new research being carried out and challenging theories that are well established, the stigma around the subject should decrease over time. With this wide range of diverse animals displaying an array of behaviours you will hear from time to time people say “it’s not natural” but in fact what is very unnatural is homophobia and the prejudices still present in a lot of our societies around the world.
To visit our wide variety primates soon please click here.