Are there examples of animals being sexually attracted to another species more than to their own?

Are there examples of animals being sexually attracted to another species more than to their own?

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I just thought that from the perspective of a female domestic cat, a male bobcat probably looks like the archetype of a perfect mate. As tall, strong, muscular and mighty as it possibly gets. Clearly preferable to any of these boring male domestics.

Has anyone ever done any research on this topic, like presenting a male cat and bobcat to a female in heat and scientifically evaluating her response? (I'm not exclusively asking for cats and bobcats, but for any type of animal, and I'm just using the cat-bobcat-example to better explain the question.)

Here are a few examples. All are open to debate as to whether it answers your question.

Zoophilia in humans

When asking of example of a "species" that does something, it is easy to forget about the diversity of behaviours among individuals of that species. It raises the question of how frequent must the behaviour be in that species to accept that the species is representative of this specific behaviour. Many might be tempted to disregard humans as examples thinking that zoophilia (sexual fixation of a human on non-human animals) is very rare but the reality appears quite different.

The Kinsey reports (1953) estimated that 8% of men and 3.6% for women had sexual interaction with animals at some point in their lives. More recent studies tend to find somewhat similar results (of the order of a few percents). These numbers seem to go way higher for people living near farms. Although these numbers seem debated, the Kinsey reports (1953) estimated that 40-50% of people living near farms have had sexual interaction with animals at some point in their lives.

Given the prevalence of zoophilia, I would argue that humans could be considered an example of a species where (some) individuals are sexually attracted to individuals of another species.

Many animals have sex with about anything

In my life I have seen many dogs, rabbits and bulls attempt to have sex with inanimate objects. If a dog can be sexually aroused by a pillow (poor pillow), then I am pretty sure it can be sexually aroused by individual of another species.

Here is a picture of a moose trying to mate with a statue of a bison

Note btw that I am talking here about animal species that have a very high cognition, so below is a funny example with a beetle.

A tragic love story

In Australia, a species of Buprestidae (family of beetles) called Julodimorpha bakewelli has gone through an important decrease in population size. The blame is on people throwing their empty bottles of beers on the side of the road. Why? Males are attracted by the brown shiny color of the females and it turns out that many glass beer bottles have this same exact color. Hence, males started to spend all their time mating with beer bottles rather than with females causing a decrease in the species population size.

Sure a beer bottle in not another species but it shows how individuals of a species can be more aroused by something else than individuals of its own species (and the example is funny; the study won the IgNobel prize in 2011).

Amazon Molly

The Amazon molly is a fish species in which there is no males. All Amazon mollies are females. However, the amazon mollies need sperm to reproduce. How is it possible?

The females have to seek for sperm in a sister species in order to activate the development of the eggs. They mate with males of this sister species but don't use the genetic material of the father from the sister species (otherwise they would not be two different species). The amazon mollies are therefore only sexually aroused by individuals of another species. See Kokko et al. (2008).

Two animals from totally different species found having sex by scientists

Scientists may have caught two animals from completely different species having consensual sex for the first time.

A new paper, titled ‘Interspecies sexual behaviour between a male Japanese macaque and female sika deer’, describes what is thought to be one of the first ever recorded instances of “reproductive interference” between two very different animals.

Sex between animals of different kinds has been reported across a wide range of the animal kingdom.

But those tend to be seen only between animals that are closely related and look similar, and are understood in the context of their relationship to how they allow the animals’ species to survive. Those reports of very different animals are usually seen between animals that are born and bred in captivity.

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Most of those examples also constitute a kind of sexual harassment. For example, scientists had previously observed Antarctic fur seals harassing king penguins.

But a new paper reports mating behaviour between two wild animals – a male Japanese macaque and a female sika deer in Japan. In this case there appeared to be no coercion and both of the animals appears to behave as if the approach was consensual.


Japanese macaques have in the past been known to ride along on deer. But the researchers say that the monkey in the new study “showed clear sexual behaviour towards several female deer”. Some of those deer tried to escape – but others apparently consented to the behaviour and “accepted the mount”, the researchers write in the journal Primates.

The researchers wrote that one deer "seemed to accept to be ridden by the male macaque", and that it was apparently licking sperm that had been deposited on its back by the monkey. Another deer refused the mount and threw the macaque off its back.

The scientists say that the most likely explanation for the strange behaviour is “mate deprivation”, a theory that suggests that animals that don’t have access to females are more likely to show such behaviour.

That may have been encouraged by the fact that the two animals already play together and co-operate, and that the macaques were entering breeding season, the scientists speculated. As such, it might just be a sexual manifestation of the play already seen.

Other explanations include the argument that the behaviour is a way of learning to copulate, the scientists said, but that is unlikely given that they are social animals and can learn from one another. It’s also unlikely that they would have sex with them because they were short of a mate – since in that case they tend either to masturbate or show homosexual behaviour.

Usually, reproductive interference is thought to be the result of one animal not properly recognising what species another animal is. But that also explains why it mostly happens in animals that are closely related and look similar – and so the explanation doesn’t apply in the new case.

The new case is the only the second report of such a case, and apparently the first of this kind. But the scientists hope that further study of it can show how mating happens between species, and could also shed light on why humans show a sexual interest in animals.

5 It's Not JUST About Having Sex With Animals

Tom is the source who first reached out to us. He's not shy about his interests, and he's also got a pretty specific "type": "I am sexually attracted to animals. Specifically, large dogs like German shepherds and borzois."

So even the zoo world has size queens.

Despite his attraction, Tom believes that non-human animals aren't capable of consenting to sex with a human being: "I haven't ever had sex with an animal, and I don't plan to, because I believe that animals can't give meaningful consent."

One of our other sources, Jim, apparently obtained consent through a series of barks -- he had his first sexual experience with an animal at "age 13, with one of my family's dogs, a male labrador retriever." He still maintains ongoing sexual relationships with other animals.

There are others who don't have any ethical problem with the idea of having sex with an animal, but their problems are more practical in nature. Our source Jake has an unrequited attraction to snakes:

"That's right, though I wouldn't ever do anything sexual with a reptile. Even if they could consent, their anatomy is so different and not really compatible with ours the chances of harm to the animal are very high. I don't think it's something people should risk."

Sexual and Other Long-Term Aspects of Imprinting in Birds and Other Species

Most of the evidence for long-range aspects of imprinting concerns the early establishment of sexual preferences, usually referred to as “sexual imprinting.” As with filial imprinting, most data are available for certain species of birds. They can be divided into two groups: intraspecific sexual imprinting and interspecific sexual imprinting. The chapter discusses the four main criteria that are the characteristic for imprinting: (1) it can take place only during a restricted time period of the individual's life, the sensitive period, (2) it is irreversible— that is, it cannot be forgotten, (3) it involves learning of supra-individual, species-specific characters, (4) it may be completed at a time when the appropriate reaction itself is not yet performed. The amount of generalization found in sexual imprinting cannot be explained due to inability to discriminate between individuals, because it has been proved, for example, in zebra finches-that after pair formation the birds may well develop a definite individual preference for a particular female. The establishment of sexual preferences through imprinting seems to be independent of conventional sexual reward. The chapter surveys some other contexts in which juvenile experience has been proved to exert a crucial influence on adult behavior, and also discusses: (1) the significance of the early determination of sexual preferences for the general concept of imprinting and (2) the biological function and possible evolutionary consequences of sexual imprinting.

Omnisexual, gynosexual, demisexual: What’s behind the surge in sexual identities?

In 1976, the French philosopher Michel Foucault made the meticulously researched case that sexuality is a social construct used as a form of control. In the 40 years since, society has been busy constructing sexualities. Alongside the traditional orientations of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual, a myriad other options now exist in the lexicon, including:

  • pansexual (gender-blind sexual attraction to all people)
  • omnisexual (similar to pansexual, but actively attracted to all genders, rather than gender-blind)
  • gynosexual (someone who’s sexually attracted to women—this doesn’t specify the subject’s own gender, as both “lesbian” and “heterosexual” do)
  • demisexual (sexually attracted to someone based on a strong emotional connection)
  • sapiosexual (sexually attracted to intelligence)
  • objectumsexual (sexual attraction to inanimate objects)
  • autosexual (someone who prefers masturbation to sexual activity with others)
  • androgynosexual (sexual attraction to both men and women with an androgynous appearance)
  • androsexual (sexual attraction towards men)
  • asexual (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction)
  • graysexual (occasionally experiencing sexual attraction, but usually not)

Clearly, people felt that the few existing labels didn’t apply to them. There’s a “demand being made to have more available scripts than just heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual,” says Robin Dembroff, philosophy professor at Yale University who researches feminist theory and construction.

Labels might seem reductive, but they’re useful. Creating a label allows people to find those with similar sexual interests to them it’s also a way of acknowledging that such interests exist. “In order to be recognized, to even exist, you need a name,” says Jeanne Proust, philosophy professor at City University of New York. “That’s a very powerful function of language: the performative function. It makes something exist, it creates a reality.”

The newly created identities, many of which originated in the past decade, reduce the focus on gender—for either the subject or object of desire—in establishing sexual attraction. “Demisexual,” for example, is entirely unrelated to gender, while other terms emphasize the gender of the object of attraction, but not the gender of the subject. “Saying that you’re gay or straight doesn’t mean that you’re attracted to everyone of a certain gender,” says Dembroff. The proliferation of sexual identities means that, rather than emphasizing gender as the primary factor of who someone finds attractive, people are able to identify other features that attract them, and, in part or in full, de-couple gender from sexual attraction.

Dembroff believes the recent proliferation of sexual identities reflects a contemporary rejection of the morally prescriptive attitudes towards sex that were founded on the Christian belief that sex should be linked to reproduction. “We live in a culture where, increasingly, sex is being seen as something that has less to do with kinship and reproduction, and more about individual expression and forming intimate bonds with more than one partner,” Dembroff says. “I think as there’s more of an individual focus it makes sense that we have these hyper-personalized categories.”

The same individuality that permeates western culture, leading people to focus on the self and value their own well-being over the group’s, is reflected in the desire to fracture group sexual identities into increasingly narrow categories that reflect personal preferences.

Some believe this could restrict individuals’ freedom in expressing fluid sexuality. Each newly codified sexual orientation demands that people adopt increasingly specific criteria to define their sexual orientation.

“Language fixes reality, it sets reality,” says Proust. “It paralyzes it, in a way. It puts it in a box, under a tag. The problem with that is it doesn’t move. It negates or denies any instability or fluidity.”

There’s also the danger that self-definition inadvertently defines other people. Just as the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” demand that people clarify their sexual preference according to their and their partner’s gender, “sapiosexual” asks that we each of us define our stance towards intelligence. Likewise, the word “pansexual” requires people who once identified as “bisexual” clarify their sexual attraction towards those who don’t identify as male or female. And “omnisexual” suggests that people should address whether they’re attracted to all genders or oblivious to them.

In Foucault’s analysis, contemporary society turns sex into an academic, scientific discipline, and this mode of perceiving sex dominates both understanding and experience of it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes this idea neatly:

Not only is there control exercised via others’ knowledge of individuals there is also control via individuals’ knowledge of themselves. Individuals internalize the norms laid down by the sciences of sexuality and monitor themselves in an effort to conform to these norms.

The new terms for sexual orientations similarly infiltrate the political discourse on sexuality, and individuals then define themselves accordingly. Though there’s nothing that prevents someone from having a demisexual phase, for example, the labels suggest an inherent identity. William Wilkerson, a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville who focuses on gender studies, says this is the distinctive feature of sexual identities today. In the past, he points out, there were plenty of different sexual interests, but these were presented as desires rather than intrinsic identities. The notion of innate sexual identities “seems profoundly different to me,” he says. “The model of sexuality as an inborn thing has become so prevalent that people want to say ‘this is how I feel, so perhaps I will constitute myself in a particular way and understand this as an identity’,” he adds.

In the 1970s and 80s there was a proliferation of sexual groups and interests similar to what we’ve seen over the past five to 10 years, notes Wilkerson. The identities that originated in earlier decades—such as bears, leather daddies, and femme and butch women—are deeply influenced by lifestyle and appearance. It’s difficult to be a butch woman without looking butch, for example. Contemporary identities, such as gynosexual or pansexual, suggest nothing about appearance or lifestyle, but are entirely defined by intrinsic sexual desire.

Dissatisfaction with existing labels doesn’t necessarily have to lead to creating new ones. Wilkerson notes that the queer movement in earlier decades was focused on anti-identity and refusing to define yourself. “It’s interesting that now, it’s like, ‘We really want to define ourselves,’” says Wilkerson.

The trend reflects an impulse to cut the legs out from under religious invectives against non-heteronormative sexualities. If you’re “born this way,” it’s impossible for your sexuality to be sinful because it’s natural, made of biological desires rather than a conscious choice. More recently, this line of thinking has been criticized by those who argue all sexualities should be accepted regardless of any link to biology that sexuality is socially constructed, and the reason no given sexuality is “sinful” is simply because any consenting sexual choice is perfectly moral.

Though it may sound ideal to be utterly undefined and beyond categories, Proust says it’s impossible. “We have to use categories. It’s sad, it’s tragic. But that’s how it is.” Constructs aren’t simply necessary for sexual identity or gender they’re an essential feature of language, she adds. We cannot comprehend the world without this “tag-fixing process.”

The proliferation of specific sexual identities today may seem at odds with the anti-identity values of queer culture, but Dembroff suggests that both work towards the same ultimate goal of eroding the impact and importance of the old-fashioned binary sexual identities. “Social change always happens in non-ideal increments,” Dembroff notes. So while today we may have dozens of sexual identities, they may become so individualized and specific that they lose any significance for group identities, and the entire concept of a fixed sexual identity is eroded.

“We demand that sex speak the truth,” wrote Foucault in The History of Sexuality. “We demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness.” We still believe sex reveals an inner truth now, however, we are more readily able to recognize that the process of discovering and identifying that truth is always ongoing.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the date Foucault published ‘The History of Sexuality.’


HIV is found in humans and other primate species. In fact, a recent discovery has shown that chimpanzees and gorillas may have been the original hosts of HIV.

As HIV spreads one million times faster than DNA can adapt, knowing where to look is key. Gorillas and humans share 98 percent of their DNA as well as the origins of HIV. Around 20 million people are affected by a type of HIV found in gorillas from Cameroon. Although HIV is usually spread from primate to primate through sexual intercourse, it&rsquos speculated that the type given to humans came from eating infected meat.

HIV can be given to humans from other primate species through blood-to-blood contact, such as bites or ingesting infected meats. A study found that a specific group of chimpanzees in West Africa tested 90 percent positive for having a virus similar to the HIV found in humans and that it was only spreading. [4]

While chimpanzees are known to have HIV, none of them demonstrate an illness similar to AIDS, which is an oddity as humans and chimpanzees share similar genetic structures.

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Perhaps we can mark consciousness by the ability of a species to cooperate in sophisticated and flexible ways. This is the approach we favor. Understanding the feelings of others through our own emotions may be the reason that consciousness arose—to allow social interactions based on empathy that must be in place for the emergence of a sophisticated cooperation that led to the human society we experience today. These are questions to which we still lack a good answer. We believe that carefully examining the consciousness-attention dissociation (or CAD) is a useful approach to distinguish the evolution of two different capacities: capacities to respond optimally to the environment and capacities to have subjective experiences.

Identifying consciousness in animals is certainly a challenge and a compelling topic in many academic and popular discussions (see this article in Aeon). We will never know “what it is like to be a bat” (referring to Nagel’s question) and communication with other species is rudimentary at best (and difficult to separate from simple behavioral responses to a specific stimulus like a pointing finger, see van Rooijen, 2010). While there must be some form of mental activity in animals that serves as the basis for consciousness in humans, it has not yet been identified clearly. Studying how attention and consciousness are related in humans might be the best way to understand what sort of conscious experience is present in animals, while also helping us to better understand human consciousness.

ELI5: Do any animals have sexual fetishes or "deviant" sexual practices? If not, why only humans?

I'm not so sure about fetishes or deviant behavior, but homosexuality has been well documented in the animal kingdom, which suggests to me that there is some sort of sexual behavior that deviates from "the norm" (if such a thing even exists).

There is a huge problem with laymen attributing human motives to animal behaviours. Animals may exhibit a behaviour that is similar to a human behaviour (e.g. a smile) but they can have different meanings to those species (e.g. smiles in humans signal happiness, smiles in other primates typically signal submissiveness or fear).

Just because other animal species preform homosexual acts does not make them homosexual. We cannot know what their sexual orientations are, if any, by the sexual acts they display. Homosexuality has not been well documented in the animal kingdom - neither has heterosexuality for that matter. Homosexuality, heterosexuality and sexual orientation are human constructs that we define within the constructs of our own cultures. To make such a blanket statement about the rest of the animal kingdom would be wrong. Other species may indeed have orientations but those may manifest in ways that are not in anyway shape or form similar to our own cultural constructs.

For example, you might be a male who is dared to kiss another male. This does not make you a homosexual, this does not make you sexually attracted to this individual, all it shows is that within your behavioural repertoire you have the ability to kiss men and women. In the same way, a women having sex with a man does not make her heterosexual. In fact, she could easily be a homosexual but for other reasons decides to have sex with a man. We need to separate the acts with the orientation.

Homosexual behaviour in animals: "The animal kingdom [does] it with much greater sexual diversity – including homosexual, bisexual and nonreproductive sex – than the scientific community and society at large have previously been willing to accept. [a]lthough homosexual behavior is very common in the animal world, it seems to be very uncommon that individual animals have a long-lasting predisposition to engage in such behavior to the exclusion of heterosexual activities. Thus, a homosexual orientation, if one can speak of such thing in animals, seems to be a rarity."

When examining other animal's behaviours we need to be VERY CAREFUL not to impose our world views, our attitudes, our behaviours and interpretations of our behaviours onto them. We need to take an unbiased approach to studying animals, and we must examine them in their own right.

Is Gender Unique to Humans?

Evidence from our closest evolutionary relatives suggests that we might not be the only animals with a sense of gender identity.

T his summer, in the introductory course I teach on the evolution and biology of human and animal behavior, I showed my students a website that demonstrates how to identify frog “genders.” I explained that this was a misuse of the term “gender” what the author meant was how to identify frog sexes. Gender, I told the students, goes far beyond mere sex differences in appearance or behavior. It refers to something complex and abstract that may well be unique to Homo sapiens. This idea is nothing new scholars have been saying for decades that only humans have gender. But later that day I began to wonder: Is it really true that gender identity is totally absent among nonhuman species—even our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos?

B efore tackling this question, it is necessary to define “sex” and “gender.” Sex refers to biological traits associated with male and female bodies. Sex isn’t a perfect binary, but it is relatively simple compared to gender.

G ender is multifaceted, complex, and a little abstract, and not everyone agrees on exactly what it means. That said, there are a couple of aspects of gender that most experts say are essential. The first is the existence of socially determined roles. Gender roles refer to the range of behaviors that society deems normal or appropriate for people of a particular gender based on their designated sex—the norms that (at least in many Western cultures) cause us to expect men to be assertive and brave, and women to be caring and accommodating, for instance.

I t’s common for people to believe that gender roles are natural or innate, ranging from religious claims that they are God-given to the argument made by evolutionary psychologists that they are the biological result of natural selection. On the contrary, while some aspects of gender-correlated behaviors are probably largely genetic in origin (researchers don’t have a great sense of which are and aren’t), most experts agree that many gender-related expectations, such as that girls play princess and boys pretend to be soldiers, are socially determined—that is, we learn them from our culture, often without even being aware of it. This socially learned aspect is as fundamental to gender as the roles themselves.

A nother fundamental aspect of gender is an internal sense of gender identity. Most people don’t just act in accordance with the roles associated with their gender identity, they also feel something inside of themselves that tells them what their gender is. For many, this sense of identity aligns with their biological sex (cisgender), but that’s not true for everyone. Plenty of people are biologically male, but they identify as women, or vice versa (transgender). Some individuals have a gender identity that is somewhere in between masculine and feminine, or it’s a mix of both or neither (androgyny). Still others are intersex, having both male and female biological traits just like those who fit on either side of the sex spectrum, intersex people fall across a range of gender identities.

Alana McLaughlin grew up as “Ryan,” and before she transitioned, she served as a soldier in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Here, she holds up a photograph of herself from before her sex reassignment surgery. She reportedly says that she has always felt female. Barcroft Images/Getty Images

S o, two criteria substantiate gender: socially determined roles and an internal sense of identity. Neither of these by itself is enough to fully encompass what gender is, but most experts appear to agree that each is a necessary aspect of gender. Therefore, to assess the common claim that gender is unique to humans, we need to look at how other species fare with respect to these two criteria.

T his is a tough endeavor—most of what we know about human gender originated from talking to people, and we usually don’t have the ability to ask other species what they think. Nonetheless (as I’ve written about before on the topic of primate vocal communication), we do have some access to animals’ minds through observing their social behavior. The evidence accrued from numerous studies, while not decisive, shows that gender might, in fact, exist in other species.


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F irst, let’s look at the question of socially determined roles. Plenty of nonhuman species show sex-based differences in behavior. From beetles to gorillas, males of many species are more aggressive than females, and they fight with one another for access to resources and mating opportunities. Males are also often the more flamboyant sex, using showy body parts and behaviors to attract females—for example, take the peacock’s tail, the mockingbird’s elaborate song, or the colorful face of the mandrill (think Rafiki from The Lion King). Females, on the other hand, are in many cases more nurturing of offspring than males after all, by the time an infant is born the female will have already devoted significant time and energy toward forming, laying, and subsequently protecting and incubating her eggs—or, in the case of us mammals, she has gone through an intense process of gestation. The costly nature of reproduction for females limits the number of infants they can have that’s why it generally behooves females to be conservative, expending their time and energy on mating with only the highest-quality males. Being choosy in this way has, over evolutionary time, generally yielded fitter offspring. As a result, females of many species have evolved to be the choosier sex, and their mate choices can direct the course of evolution (an idea that scandalized Victorian England when first proposed by Charles Darwin).

A diver swims near a pregnant male long-snouted seahorse in the Adriatic Sea, Pag Island, Croatia. Borut Furlan/Getty Images

T here are exceptions to every rule, of course. Male seahorses get pregnant. Female spotted hyenas dominate males and sport a pseudo-penis (enlarged clitoris) that is capable of erection and can be as much as 90 percent the size of a male’s penis. As matriarchal as spotted hyena society is, it doesn’t quite reach the level of the northern jacana, a wading bird species whose common territory ranges from Panama to Mexico. Female northern jacanas patrol a territory full of males and fight off intruding females the smaller males engage in less territorial behavior than females, instead spending that time caring for a nest full of the resident female’s eggs.

Turning to our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, we see additional illustrative examples of the natural variation that exists in sex-correlated behavior. Although the two species are 99.6 percent genetically identical (and equidistant from humans), they are quite different . In general, adult male chimpanzees, like males of many species, are aggressive, domineering, and status-seeking. Much of their time is spent either patrolling territorial boundaries to deter or even kill members of other communities, or vying for social power within their own group. Adult females are generally less political and less violent—they have other priorities, like caring for offspring—but they can still influence the state of social affairs by breaking up male fights or leading rival males to reconcile. After all, as is the case in many species, much of what males stand to gain from high status is access to mating opportunities with females.

It’s been said that if chimpanzees are from Mars, then bonobos are from Venus . Bonobo society is generally female-dominated . Unlike female chimpanzees who mostly, though not always, keep their noses out of politics, female bonobos reign by forming male-dominating coalitions. They bond partly through genito-genital rubbing (it is what it sounds like), forming stronger relationships than female chimps typically have with one another. As for male bonobos, they are much less violent on average than male chimps. Unlike with chimpanzees, lethal aggression has never formally been observed in bonobos (though there has been one suspected instance ) bonobos are more likely to share food (and maybe sex) with a stranger than to fight.

Some scholars look at the sex differences in behavior described in the above paragraphs as clear examples of nonhuman gender. But none of the evidence I have covered so far proves that behavioral differences between male and female chimpanzees, bonobos, or other nonhuman species are socially determined. Again, gender necessarily entails socially determined roles. Do we have any evidence that chimp and bonobo behaviors are determined socially rather than biologically?

T hat is the question Michelle Rodrigues, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, and Emily Boeving, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Florida International University , set out to answer . They found that there is flexibility in some of the sex roles previously observed in chimpanzees and bonobos—specifically, in grooming. In both chimpanzees and bonobos (as well as in many other primates), grooming serves as a way of strengthening social bonds. In the wild, most of the grooming in both species is male-on-female or vice versa. Where the species differ is that among wild chimpanzees, male-male grooming is generally more common than female-female grooming—an imbalance not seen in bonobos.

Bonobos groom each other at the Columbus Zoo. Michelle Rodrigues/Springer Japan KK

R odrigues and Boeving wondered whether chimps and bonobos living at zoos would show the same grooming patterns. To investigate this, they observed chimpanzees and bonobos at the North Carolina Zoo and Columbus Zoo, respectively, paying special attention to grooming networks. In contrast to data from the wild, zoo-living apes’ grooming seemed to be more related to individuals’ histories and personalities than their sex: Neither species showed the sex-typical grooming patterns displayed by their wild counterparts.

T his is solid evidence that certain sex roles are at least partly environmentally determined in these species. But is environmental determination the same as social or cultural determination? Not exactly. Social learning could be responsible for the flexibility we see in chimpanzee and bonobo sex roles. In this hypothetical scenario, wild female chimpanzees groom less than males because growing up, they receive less grooming from other females, and they witness little, if any, female-female grooming. They are socialized in these ways not to spend as much time grooming. In the zoo, then, the “culture” around grooming is atypical, and females are socialized differently. However, an equally plausible (but not mutually exclusive) possibility is that sex-based behavioral differences in the wild are simply the result of individuals finding ways of coping with their environment: Females in the wild have the responsibility of infant care. As a result, they are too busy foraging to spend much time socializing. At the zoo, with humans providing food, females groom more simply because they have the extra time—no social learning of sex roles is required.

A gain, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. Both could play a part. I spoke with Rodrigues about what evidence would be necessary to conclude that chimpanzee or bonobo sex roles were socially determined.

“ We would need to see evidence that adults are actively treating male and female infants and juveniles differently, and actively [socializing] them differently,” she said. Rodrigues pointed out that some chimpanzee behavior is suggestive of different treatment of male and female offspring: For example, she noted, “data on young chimpanzees indicates that female chimpanzees spend more time observing their mothers termite-fishing and, in turn, are able to master termite-fishing using their mother’s technique at a younger age.” Researchers aren’t certain whether this is due to active socialization by mothers or an innate preference among female offspring to observe their mothers’ techniques. Even so, this observation is consistent with the idea of social determination of at least some, but probably not all, sex roles in chimps.

Chimpanzees use a stick to fish for termites. Manoj Shah/Getty Images

F lexibility in chimpanzee sex roles is not limited to the grooming patterns discussed earlier. Females occasionally participate in males’ political coalitions or go ranging with a mostly male group. Likewise, some males seem to prefer ranging with smaller groups of mostly females, or they spend more time interacting with infants than is typical for males. But scientists generally don’t consider this evidence of chimpanzee gender-bending. Rodrigues told me female-like behavior by male chimps is usually interpreted as a result of low rank—it’s not that the males prefer these feminine roles, it’s that they are relegated to these positions by dominant males.

“ But,” Rodrigues said, “it may be that our existing frameworks for interpreting behavior are too focused on paternity and rank. I think one of the challenges in interpreting behavior is that our own social constructions color how we theorize and interpret data.”

( Now, you may be thinking, “What about bonobos?” Most of the evidence bearing on these questions comes from chimpanzees, who have been studied much more extensively than bonobos. That said, despite their many differences in behavior, chimpanzees and bonobos are still very closely related, and their cognitive capacities are likely very similar. If one species has something like gender, the other probably does too.)

S o far, it’s not inconceivable that chimpanzees and bonobos might have something akin to human gender. But we haven’t yet touched on the other crucial criterion for gender: an internal, mental construct. How, if at all, do nonhuman animals think about sex and social roles? Scientists get at this question using cognitive testing—specifically, by testing animals’ concepts.

I n psychology, “concepts” refer to mental categories. Round shapes vs. sharp shapes, light colors vs. dark colors, males vs. females—these are all concepts. Scientists have tried-and-true methods for getting at animals’ concepts, the most common being the match-to-sample testing paradigm: An animal is presented with a “sample” image, and then they must select the “matching” image among other options in order to receive a reward. For example, an animal might see a sample image of a female, then be rewarded for choosing a subsequently presented image of a female from alongside an image of a male. If the animal can learn to succeed at this task, it suggests that they possess a concept of “female.” This concept is, again, a mental category that allows the animal to recognize that some images depict a female and others don’t. In a few studies (like this one, this one, and this one) using this technique, monkeys have displayed concepts of male and female. In a similar study, where chimpanzees learned to match faces of individuals they knew to generic images of male and female behinds, the authors went so far as to call their findings evidence of a “gender construct.”

T hese studies are telling, but they’re not entirely conclusive. The subjects could have a full-blown, human-like concept of sex, but looking only at these tests, it’s also possible that the animals are simply learning to categorize images based on distinguishing features. Just as a sommelier learns to recognize different wines based on tannins, sweetness, and mouthfeel, subjects might be learning to recognize images of males and females based on depicted genitals, face shape, and body size rather than any social concept of the sexes.

L uckily, we don’t have to rely solely on cognitive testing we can and should interpret the results of these tests in the context of natural social behavior in which there are plenty of examples of individuals seeming to distinguish between male and female groupmates. Alone, either of these lines of evidence—social behavior or cognitive tests—would be ambiguous, but taken jointly, they strongly suggest that chimpanzees have concepts of “male” and “female,” and, like humans, categorize individuals they know according to these concepts.

T hese concepts around the sexes are certainly an important part of gender, but they don’t equal a sense of gender identity—humans take these sex concepts and go further by applying them to how they think about themselves. Do our closest relatives do this? Direct evidence on this question is lacking, but some of the cognitive abilities that chimpanzees and bonobos have shown in unrelated contexts suggest that it’s possible.

Studies in the early 2000s showed that dolphins are able to recognize themselves in mirrors. Joe Raedle /Getty Images

H ere it’s prudent to consider whether chimpanzees and bonobos have any sense of identity—or sense of self—at all. To find out, scientists have tested “mirror self-recognition”: the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror. As you might guess, chimpanzees and bonobos (along with other apes, dolphins, elephants, and some other nonhumans) show this ability, quickly realizing that the image in the mirror is a reflection of themselves and using the mirror to inspect their appearance. Scientists view this as evidence that an individual possesses an understanding of itself as an entity separate from the rest of the world. This understanding can be regarded as the foundation of a potential sense of gender identity.

A second question is: Do chimpanzees and bonobos understand that others are independent “selves” with their own internal mental lives? This understanding is really a set of abilities, collectively referred to as “theory of mind.” Chimp theory of mind is more controversial than mirror self-recognition, but the consensus view is that chimpanzees do possess this understanding, albeit probably not as fully as humans. (Again, because chimpanzees and bonobos are so closely related and have shown no major differences in cognitive abilities, we can assume the same is true of bonobos.)

S o, chimpanzees and bonobos possess a sense of self and seem to understand that others, like them, have internal mental lives. And as we saw earlier, chimps seem to hold mental concepts of “male” and “female,” and categorize acquaintances accordingly. From there, I don’t think it’s implausible that chimps might apply those concepts not only to others but to their own sense of self. If—and this is a big if—that is the case, then chimpanzees possess sex roles that are not only flexible and potentially socially determined (as we saw earlier) but also tied to mental concepts that contribute to an individual’s sense of identity. If you ask me, that sounds a lot like gender.

I t bears repeating that we lack direct evidence of an internal gender identity in chimpanzees, bonobos, and other nonhuman animals. But the question of gender in a nonhuman species has yet to be tackled in a comprehensive way, so perhaps a license to speculate a bit is warranted. If nothing else, it seems clear that gender in other species is entirely possible.

T he more closely related two species are, the more likely it is that they share cognitive processes . And since chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest evolutionary cousins, the most scientifically sound approach may actually be to interpret ambiguous data as supporting, rather than challenging, the idea of human-like gender in our closest relatives. History has seen plenty of human-exceptionalist claims refuted. Much more research needs to be done, but in time, gender may turn out to be just one in a long list of attributes once thought to make humans unique.


From a practical point of view, we can define bestiality as the practice of one animal mating an individual from different species, with which it is not genetically compatible. Some instances can, of course, be put down to mistakes, particularly when species appear similar, but there are plenty of examples where the animal has, quite simply, no such excuse.

This YouTube video of a chimp abusing a frog is a fairly spectacular example. African Wildlife Guide also reports an incident in which an elephant mated with a rhino.

Similarly, the BBC recently reported an incident in which an Antarctic fur seal sexually assaulted a king penguin. It seems unlikely to have been a simple mistake, and the watching research team were baffled as to why it happened.

As with necrophilia, such behaviour seems to be an evolutionary mistake. By expending sperm without any possibility of producing offspring, the animals are reducing their fitness.

The unfortunate male wasps duped into ejaculating on orchids are one of the most striking examples of this. The orchid benefits by spreading its pollen, but it seems the wasps get nothing out of it.

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