Can Animals be Gay? New York Times (April 2, 2010)
It’s truly none of my business whether or not people with different sexual preferences choose to commit to marriage. In fact, I think that everyone should try it at least once, and some have endeavored to try it many times. No one cares whether I condone or endorse it, but I do know that the divorce rate among some pelagic seabirds that have entered into committed relations with same-sex partners is particularly low. And yes, biologists do refer to the frequency of break-ups of such unions in the animal kingdom as divorce rates.
Text books have recently broached the subject of same-sex relations in the animal kingdom because it’s much more common than we once thought and evolutionary biologists, and sociobiologists now recognize these relationships as important factors that drive evolution. Same-sex unions play a role in cooperative breeding strategies, they help mediate intrasexual conflict, and they facilitate social bonding. These partnerships are documented in courtship behavior, pair bonding and copulation in species as wide-ranging as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Even one of our closest simian relative, the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee is known to engage in these kinds of partnerships. Invertebrates such as molluscs and nematodes also participate in such behavior. As a medical zoologist, applied nematology of parasitic species in zoo animals is an interest of mine, but I can’t say that I have observed same sex relations among roundworms that I’m aware of.
The spheniscid penguins at the San Francisco Zoo elicited world-wide attention as have other penguin couples at the Central Park and Bremerhaven zoos . I don’t know what transpired in Manhattan or in Germany, but partners Harry and Pepper are the two Magellanic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo who were broken up by a female penguin (technically called a hen) by the name of Linda. Harry and Pepper entered into a romantic relationship in 2003 and spent several years together before splitting up.
Magellanics are spheniscid penguins native to Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands. They are closely related to black-footed (jackass) penguins of South Africa and the Humboldt penguins (Peruvian penguins) of the Chilean and Peruvian coastlines. All three species are common in captivity. Temperate penguins are not only popular exhibit animals, but anyone who has worked with them can share fond memories of these birds. And many keepers bare the scars of their painful bites as I can. The spectrum of docility in these captive birds ranges quite a bit. I don’t want to suggest that these penguins are inherently vicious. Some are great animal ambassadors and commonly participate in hands-on education programs. Careful monitoring of imprinted animals is always considered.
Only the keepers may be able to provide the intricate social dynamics and genealogy of a particular captive colony. San Francisco Zoo keeper, Anthony Brown, is quite a knowledgeable and seasoned zoo professional. Perhaps he can share more details and insight into the particular love triangle involving Harry, Pepper and Linda. He could als0 share more about the sociobiology of these temperate penguin species in general. I myself have worked with different penguin species, but among spheniscid birds, I have only been privileged to work with a colony of 40 black-footed penguins. I wouldn’t be surprised if we overlooked some of these atypical partnerships in the colony that I worked with. They were a blast to take care of. Even if you have a feather phobia I recommend that you find an opportunity to work with these little guys.
Spheniscid penguins may be a bit more promiscuous than Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins in captivity and in the wild. I can’t speak to that claim, but they certainly are more liberal in their romantic interests than some pelagic sea birds. Laysan albatrosses, for instance, live about twice as long as spheniscid penguins and they may remain in monogamous same-sex relationships for their entire lifespan (approx. 60 yrs). This brings us to crooner, and world- acclaimed recording artist Engelbert Humperdinck. One of his more recent hits Lesbian Seagull became a pop culture sensation. Nearing 75, the legend also known as the “King of Romance” shared his appreciation for all kinds of romance with this tribute to same-sex partnerships in seagulls.
Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus