Animal Gender Benders: The Fluid Gender Spectrum of the Animal Kingdom

Gender has always been assumed to be a binary concept. You’re either male or female. There is nothing in-between. But as research shows, gender is beyond just the physical and often pervades the psychological and the emotional. The environment also plays an active role in gender adoption and identity.

 

Gender identity has always been a topic that has been extremely controversial. But thanks to more investment in gender studies and a greater tolerance towards our brethren (a consequence of the rich multi-cultural environment we live in), today, people are opening their hearts and minds to the concept of gender identity. We are a lot more open to the idea of people choosing the genders they best identify with; as opposed to living with the one they were assigned.

It is a wonder that we humans have such a difficult time grasping the concept of ‘gender as a spectrum’ when our animal cousins have for long exhibited gender fluid traits. Maybe it’s time we revisited our long-held notions and straightened-out our crooked understanding of gender.

5 gender notions redefined in the wild

We have certain pre-conceived notions about what males and females are supposed to be. Unfortunately, not all of these notions are true. The animals in this list are challenging accepted (stereotypical) notions about what it means to be male and female.

Let’s take a notion, one-at-a-time and see the animals that blow these theories out of the water.

Notion #1: Males are bigger and stronger than females

One of the most mesmerizing creatures of the deep seas is the Anglerfish. One look at them and you’ll remember a character from your favourite horror movie. With extremely large heads and dark, glassy eyes, they look like true-blue aliens.

When it comes to the anglerfish, it is the female that reigns supreme. She is almost 10X larger than the tiny males and can reach lengths up to 3.3 ft. Her large, sharp jaws are designed to annihilate prey of all sizes and are flexible enough to chow-down on prey double their size.

Temperamentally, the females are crankier than the males and can turn on each other and other animals in an instant. The males, on the other hand, are submissive and steer clear of the females until it’s time to mate.

This rare footage shows a pair of anglerfish during mating.

 

Notion #2: Animals remain the same gender they were born with throughout their lives

It’s safe to say that sex-change surgeries haven’t been developed for animals. But this hasn’t stopped these fish from taking control of their bodies. Clownfish have a matriarchal society with the largest female being the alpha. When she dies, the largest male physically transforms into a female and takes her place. This process of changing from males to females is called protandry.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the wrasse, where the largest females change physiologically into males when the resident dominant male is no more.  We call this phenomenon of females transforming into males as protogyny. In the picture below, the female (with the small head) changes in colouring and develops a large bulbous head in its place when transforming into a male.

Kobudai
Source: A male and female Asian sheepshead wrasse pair – the male has a large bulbous development on his head

Then there are animals like the coral-dwelling Gobiodon (aka goby) which engages in what we call serial bidirectional sex change. If three female goby are placed in an aquarium, the most dominant female transforms into a male, to create opportunities to mate. However, the moment a male is introduced into the group, the newly-turned goby changes back into a female and displays traditional feminine characteristics. Animals like the goby can undergo sex changes numerous times in their lives, whenever they want, wherever they want.

 

Notion #3: Only females get pregnant and bear young

Well, to be fair, this notion is true for most species. Most species, except the seahorse. Seahorse mothers produce eggs just like other mums. But instead of having the eggs fertilized and incubating them in their own bodies, they transfer the eggs to the males when it is time to mate.

A small slit in the male’s torso acts as a pocket to collect the tiny eggs. Once inside his body, the male fertilizes the eggs with his sperm and moves the fertilized eggs into an incubation pouch within his body.

Fast-forward 24 days and you’ll see thousands of tiny baby seahorses jetting their way out of dad’s tummy. Take a look at this video to see a live seahorse-birth in action.

 

Notion #4: Only males have penises and they will display them proudly

While penises are predominantly a male appendage, a look at the female spotted hyena will have you doubling back in shock. In the world of the spotted hyena, the female is the one that wears the pants. She is the one who makes the decision, who decides the pecking order and who also possesses a scrotum and an elongated penis. These appendages are actually the clitoris that gets re-shaped due to excessive testosterone in the female’s body. These masculine physiological characteristics give her a very short fuse and a horrifying bite.

This video gives great insight into the female hyena’s pseudo-penis.

If at one end of the spectrum we have a woman with a penis, at the other end we have a male with an all-too-feminine perineum.

Females of the colobus monkey species remain in the family group all their lives. The males, on the other hand, are kicked out when they reach puberty. During mating season, the females display a swollen anus, indicating they are in heat. This then becomes an invitation to all the males to woo the females. At this time, adolescent males are turned out of their homes by older males, in an attempt to reduce competition for females. To avoid this sorry fate, adolescent male colobus monkeys develop the faux-female-perineum in an attempt to confuse the troupe. This tactic of masquerading as females helps them avoid eviction for a few weeks.

 

Notion #5: Only males are sexually aggressive and fight for rights over females

It’s long been believed that males of all species are the only ones who have a high libido and that they are the ones who chase after the ladies. But Rhesus monkey females will definitely put this theory to rest. The females of this group have a raging libido and sometimes force males into coitus. The females have been noticed making lewd gestures at males and at times even raping them.

Another primate species where the women want to hit the sack more than the males – the bonobo. These animals really enjoy swinger parties.

If there are women who force their way into a man’s bed, there are others where the females duel with their sisters for the right to mate; and make no mistake, there’s nothing gentle-womanly about this catfight.

 

Antelope fight
Source: Two female antelopes in a fight for mates

 

Or maybe we should call it the antelope fight, instead. Female antelopes can get exceptionally aggressive during mating season. They interrupt couples in heat while mating and challenge the females to a fight to the finish. The winner gets the man and the loser moves on. Every man’s dream isn’t it?

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

 

Featured image: Gender

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