Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

Monkey – Animal Allies


I am fairly certain that this is a capuchin monkey which was the species used by the organ grinder and I’m going to look at these specifically as well as shorter look at monkeys more generally.


“If monkey has swung into your view, consider how you could add a little fun, play and harmless mischief making into your days.  Are you taking yourself too seriously? Let monkey inspire you to let your fun loving inner child out to play”
– Animal Allies

Monkeys in culture are often cast as the joker, an entertainer and a prankster.  They show us the value of play, of messing around and that there is a time and a place for humour and fun and even good-natured mischief.

Being closely related to humans, they are seen as clever and resourceful and are often held up as being excellent examples of tool makers/users and problem solvers despite there being many other creatures that are just as, if not more, intelligent (although animal intelligence is a hard thing to measure or even define).  For example, pigeons, not the obvious clever bird (a title that normally goes to corvids like crows), have excellent spatial intellect which is exactly what they need.  I feel like labelling monkeys and primates as clever is a way of boosting ourselves – if we acknowledge and focus on the pigeon as a clever bird, by association we are (or could feel we are) saying that our intellect is nothing special.  Thinking about this from a self reflection point of view, are you boosting yourself by belittling others?

We can also think about the resourcefulness and ask ourselves if we have the resources within us that we need or if we have the tools to solve the problem that we’re facing.  Thinking about the cleverness of the monkey and see if we need to make more use of our minds in our lives right now.  A less obvious thing to ask ourselves though is what happens when our intellect goes unstimulated?  For me, that’s a quick slide into depression and I am very mindful of this.  I make sure that every week I do at least one thing that challenges my mind and almost always do much more.  I have to be careful because when I am ill or my pain is high etc and I’m not able to do much more than stay in bed I’m not really up to doing things like crosswords or reading non fiction or watching documentaries.

Interestingly, whilst monkeys in general are considered clever, capuchins are considered the most intelligent of the New World monkeys so messages around intelligence are particularly relevant here.  Indeed, it is this intelligence that led to monkeys being used by organ grinders.

Other areas of monkey lives that are interesting to explore include the group dynamics of non solitary species such as what kind of hierarchy do they have, where in this are you and how do you feel about this, how do you bond with other group or family members, how do you display compassion and how do you communicate with them.  If you’re looking at a monkey oracle card that isn’t an animal allies card I would encourage you to explore the species featured as this may shape your interpretation.

Capuchin Monkeys

But now for Capuchins!

Capuchin monkeys are black and white and if you’ve read a few of these posts, you’ll know by now that black and white often means dualities, dichotomies, yin and yang, light and dark.  With the monkey, we have the intellect and the playfulness.  The joker and the carer.

Let’s have a look at where the name comes from.  Capuchin monkeys were discovered by explorers to the Americas in the 15th century and the particular type of capuchin they found resembled friars from the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin who wore brown robes with large hoods covering their heads.

Capuchins live in groups ranging from about 10-35 members, generally with a single male at the head of the group although white headed capuchins (which I’m fairly certain the pictured capuchin is) are led by a lead male and a lead female!  As a feminist I love this and I think that as well as the duality of colour, we see in this card a duality of masculine and feminine (NB, not male and female but the stereotyped traits) and how these can balance each other, come together and create harmony.

Group dynamics and bonds are reinforced through grooming and complex communication including facial expressions and gestures as well as calls.  We are asked to think about how we relate to those around us, how we communicate and what our body language is saying.

Different groups also engage in or ‘invent’ other behaviour which helps to make bonds and also tests relationships.  This includes hand sniffing, eye poking and sticking fingers in each others mouths as well as the more violent rock throwing… Some of these behaviours become local ‘traditions’ which are passed from capuchin to capuchin and which are localised.  This creativeness and inventiveness around bonding puts me in mind of the 5 love languages.  It’s about finding what works for you and those you are relating to and part of that is understanding how your partner expresses their love and what they see as love.  For example, some people value quality time more than anything else and feel that if someone loves them they will show it by spending quality time with them.  Others may feel the same about words of affirmation or physical touch and part of relating well to another is around understanding this potential difference.

Research has suggested that capuchins favour unselfish behaviour.  The experiment involved humans being helpful or unhelpful to other humans and this third party interaction appears to show that capuchins will then respond differently to the helpful/unhelpful human.

Whilst some of the local behaviours of the capuchins have clear evolutionary purposes, such as how to get fruits out of shells, others do not – such as biting of chunks of fur and holding it in the mouth whilst the other monkey tries to get it back.  These local traditions tend to last about ten years or so and then, like human trends, they fade away.  Traditions are important but, the capuchin is teaching us, so is being flexible.  Some awful atrocities are carried out and explained away in the name of tradition so whilst we may value traditions, we should still be open to questioning them.

dualities * dichotomies * balance * intellect * tradition * communication * bonding