In 2018, the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium allowed a pair of dolphins to foster an egg, according to a 2018 article from NBC News. The staff made sure that they were successful in doing so, with the baby Gentoo penguin chick cracking through its shell on October 19. Trials were made with a dummy egg, then they replaced it with the real egg.

But what made the news was not that the fostering was successful, but that both penguins were male. Magic and Sphen, as they were named, formed a bond with each other before the 2018 breeding season.

This event has brought into the global spotlight – again – the question of whether animals have gender fluidity in the same way that humans are perceived to have.

Not the same: Gender and sex

When it comes to humans, the idea of sex and gender are often mistaken as the same thing. The following are basic definitions, according to a 2018 article by Tim Newman published in Medical News Today.

Sex: It’s physical

Sex is usually related to biological differences – these include the organs that make a man a man, and a woman a woman, in the most physical of senses. It can also be applied to secondary characteristics, such as body hair and breasts.

But as we understand biology more, questions do come up, particularly in unusual cases where, for example, women have the chromosomes of a man, or in cases where rare biological issues makes a fetus develop what seems to be the body of a girl until puberty hits and they develop male secondary characteristics.

Gender: It’s social

Gender is related more to a person’s society and culture, and how they perceive the roles of men and women. This changes from one society to another and the change can be very different. In fact, the concept of a man or woman’s social roles and traditions change over time. A good example of this is the idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys. In the early decades of the 20th century, it was the other way around. Oh, my!

So, when it comes to humans – who are, of course, also animals – the concept of sex and gender is complicated. We are very social animals and much of our behavior is defined by being either a boy or a girl, be it through sex or gender.

But is a duck really just a duck?

It may come as a surprise to some, but when it comes to same-sex relationships, many species do have a portion of their population that engages in behavior that would be seen as same-sex attraction and bond formation, reported Heather Catchpole in a 2004 article for ABC Science. What many people in the scientific fields debate about is why non-human same-sex relationships or actions happen in the first place.

In some cases, it’s believed that certain animals evolve same-sex behavior because it somehow makes for a better survival strategy for their community or species. Some birds, for example, may have female-to-female relationships, to help in incubating more eggs, such as certain species of terns. Some species of water birds also have male-to-male relationships to occupy more territory.

These kinds of relationships are also observed in giraffes and lions. However, what interests many scientists are the relationships that primates form, since our evolutionary cousins in the wild have complex relationships.

Other suggestions put forward for the existence of these relationships also include a possibility of a population that heavily lacks either females or males to keep a certain number of breeding pairs. And, intriguingly, there is also the concept that some of these relationships among our friends in the animal kingdom may be based – just like many of our own relationships – on the concept of pleasure. With some observers noting that certain same-sex relationships among our furry or feathered friends last longer than the equivalent normal relationship, this has become somewhat controversial point, though it needs more research.

Do the nose know?

One of the more intriguing concepts for sex and gender issues – which may apply, surprisingly, to both humans and non-humans – is the possibility that it’s all in our nose, according to research featured in a 2012 article by Tim Radford for The Guardian.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the test involved smelling underarm sweat from 24 donors of various gender and sexual orientations. Eighty-two heterosexual and homosexual men and women were asked to, um, sniff and figure out how the experience was.

Surprisingly, it turns out that gay men could, in general, smell gay men. They also liked the scent of heterosexual women. The scent of gay men, on the other hand, is least preferred by heterosexual men and women, and by lesbian women.

Given that many non-human species rely on scent as part of their mating rituals, communication channels, and even their advertisement of how healthy and ready to mate they are, the question does come up if, while same-sex relationships and actions have a social base and a gender aspect for humans, there is also a biological basis.

And does this mean that when it comes to animals, gender relationships and sexual characteristics have, at their base, a biological trigger?

That’s something to think about.

Gendering our animal friends

The real issue, it seems, is on how we as people see what’s happening in the animal kingdom. With gender being a social role and as something intrinsically linked to the sense of identity, wouldn’t it be possible that we are projecting the notion of gender orientation on, say, our canine companions?

Surprisingly, the answer to that probably is rooted on how developed social roles and the sense of identity are in the species that we are looking at, according to a 2018 article by Jay Schwartz for Discover Magazine. For example, chimpanzees and Bonobo monkeys, though being very similar in terms of genetics, are opposing social types.

Chimpanzees tend to be patriarchal and aggressive, while Bonobo monkeys are female-dominated and tend to have less violence in their everyday actions. Both chimpanzees and Bonobos, however, have a certain flexibility in their system that allows for the switching of what we see as gender roles. But there’s a hitch!

Me Tarzan, you… well, John, you’re Jane

One of the possibilities that researchers are looking into is that sometimes, the fluidity of gender roles may be dependent on the social hierarchy of the local community. For example, some male chimpanzees may socialize more with the females of the group not because he feels like a woman, but because in their society, he has a status that only allows him to participate in female-dominated social activities – in effect, he has been shut out of the more traditionally male social activities. The same can go for a female chimpanzee who is participating in male activities, and so on.

This sort of role flexibility can still be said to be in keeping with how, in the animal kingdoms, the competition for mating hierarchy can produce gender-switched individuals. The real question and point for research, then, could be if the individual himself or herself chooses a gender-switched role, regardless of his or her natural “rank” in society.

Yes? No?

So, coming to the end of this, should we consider that animals can also switch their gender orientation? The answer is that what we perceive to be gender roles can be switched between biologically male or female non-human individuals. However, we should also be aware that it may be a function of their social network, community hierarchy, or even base survival requirements, instead of an internal sense of identity, a knowing that one’s identity is not the same as one’s sexual physicality.

So, the question of gender orientation among animals is still an open question – mainly because the question of gender and sexuality as we apply it to non-humans is still fit to our standards, not theirs.

We still have much to learn.

And as for Sphen and Magic, they’ve been given another egg to foster (as of this writing, not yet hatched), and the first chick they have fostered is about to turn a year old, as reported by Hannah Sparks in a 2019 article for New York Post.

Oh, and apparently, they have the neatest, biggest, and most beautiful nest in the entire penguin exhibit area. Hmmm.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s January 2020 issue.

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