Queer Nature

Dr David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History and Geology

A couple of years ago, I was asked to share information relating to specimens in our Natural History Galleries at Norwich Castle Museum and LGBTQ+ history. As part of the ‘Taboo’ series of tours/talks around the museum, the tours would be designed to highlight different aspects of the collections and spark discussion over topics that perhaps in the past were considered off-limits. Building on the success of other museums, such as Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Cambridge University Museum of Zoology and others, I knew I wanted to go down the route of queer nature, rather than talking about people (many of whom we know very little about their private lives beyond that of what they collected and studied).

A bright museum gallery. Visitors gaze in wonder at the taxidermy animals on display, including fierce lions, scaly fish and a giant polar bear
The main Natural History Gallery at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

With over 1,000 specimens in Norwich Castle’s main Natural History Gallery, we were spoiled for choice when it came to animals to talk about. As different people would be giving the Taboo tours, more animals were chosen than were needed, so that individuals could select stories that they preferred, or they could talk about with more familiarity and enthusiasm. In this blog I focus on just three of the many narratives that are covered by the tours.

So which species to choose? Well, first I needed to narrow the field down a little. Obviously, we were also constrained by what we have in the gallery in the first place – we couldn’t choose the textbook classic of clownfish changing gender from male to female for example, as there aren’t any of them in the gallery! Luckily, we have a taxidermy giraffe head within the ‘Out of Africa’ section of the gallery, and this seemed a good place to start.

Giraffes (Giraffa spp.) are fascinating animals anyway: the tallest animal on earth, with the longest neck and a top speed of 60 kmph. But what of their LGBTQ+ credentials? Well, they’re actually fantastic examples, as they’ve often been described as the ‘gayest’ animal. A behaviour known as ‘necking’ (when males rather balletically swing their heads at each other, clashing necks, heads and horns) was previously thought to be something similar to deer rutting. Essentially, males fighting over females. However, due to some astute studies, we now know that it is much more akin to ‘necking’ in teenage humans! The two male giraffes’ intentions are far more amorous than previously thought. In fact, one study of wild giraffes in Tanzania showed that 94% of copulations were between males, with only 6% between males and females.

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) ‘necking’ at sunrise at the Ithala Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
(image from commons.wikimedia.org)

The next animal highlight from our LGBTQ+ tour is the Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae). Now, you may have heard of Roy and Silo – penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo? The two males famously paired up and reared a chick called Tango together after they were given an egg from another pair of penguins who couldn’t hatch it. However, Roy and Silo are chinstrap penguins, not Adélies. Similar same-sex pairings have been seen in other zoos and other penguin species, including king penguins in Denmark, Humboldt penguins in Germany and cape penguins in Canada. However, we’re interested in Adélie penguins’ queer behaviour because of a particular historical cover-up.

One of the Adélie penguins in Norwich Castle Museum’s collection

During the 1910-13 Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Robert Scott, the ship’s surgeon zoologist, George Levick studied the breeding cycle of a colony of Adélie Penguins at Cape Adare, Victoria Land, East Antarctica. What Levick observed shocked his Edwardian sensibilities, but as a thorough and respectable scientist, he none-the-less documented everything he witnessed. However, he recorded the “astonishing depravity” he saw in Ancient Greek instead of English; seemingly in an attempt to protect the more impressionable members of society from his findings.

Norwich Castle Museum’s ‘To the Ends of the Earth’ case in the Natural History Gallery. The case features animals, plants, rocks and objects relating to both poles; including a polar bear and penguins

So, what did George Levick discover that he found so shocking? It’s true to say that a whole host of behaviours were observed, and much of the more ‘shocking’ behaviour can be explained by inexperience and the misreading signals and cues by juvenile birds. But, one of the more prominent behaviours observed was homosexuality – especially amongst the younger males. Levick published his findings when he returned home (in English this time!). However, the pamphlet he produced (entitled ‘Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin’) was privately circulated amongst a select few experts only. It was never published as a scientific paper, never circulated widely, and soon forgotten about. It would be 50 years before anyone observed Adélie Penguins in anywhere near the same detail and meticulousness – and half a century before the true sexual habits of Adélie Penguins were rediscovered by science. Only in 2012, a chance museum find helped us to uncover Levick’s century-old discoveries.

Penguins in the main Natural History Gallery at Norwich Castle. Homosexual behaviour has been recorded in all of these species. Clockwise, from left to right: adult emperor penguin, juvenile emperor penguin, adult king penguin, adult chinstrap penguin, emperor penguin chick, adult Adélie penguin

From Antarctica, to Norfolk. But, perhaps surprisingly it’s spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta) we’re going to look at next. Yes, that’s right – hyaenas are (or at least were) native to Norfolk! The exact same species that you find in Africa today were trotting about in what’s now West Runton and Cromer some 1 million to possibly as recent as 11,000 years ago. They got here on their own (they weren’t introduced); and that’s the definition of a native species. Of course, they are regionally extinct now, due to the extreme weather of the last Ice Age, but for a time they did live here. Spotted hyaena are once again a fascinating species in their own right – they have more vocal repertoire than any other African predator, and their brains are several times larger than other species of hyaena and even social big cats such as lions. Contrary to popular belief, they also spend much of their time hunting (rather than scavenging) and lions even pilfer from hyaenas, rather than the other way around.

David Waterhouse with an African spotted hyaena taxidermy head and a 700,000-year-old hyaena coprolite (otherwise known as semi-fossilised droppings!) from West Runton

But, it’s their gender-bending role-reversal that we focus on for the ‘Taboo’ tours. It truly is a matriarchal society that spotted hyaenas live in; with males being dominated by the females. It’s the most dominant females that get to eat first at a kill, followed by less senior females, then finally the males. The role reversal doesn’t end with behaviour though – without getting to much into the finer details of genital anatomy; female spotted hyaenas have a structure known as a ‘pseudopenis’. This clearly confused the great mind of Aristotle in the 4th century BC; because he wrongly described the species as being hermaphroditic (having both male and female organs in one individual).

But, why has this species evolved in this way? The truthful answer is that no-one really knows for sure. We do know that it is a result of high levels of testosterone whilst the females are still in the womb. It most probably also gives females much more control over who fathers their young, adding a physical barrier to mating, but also giving the potential mother the ability to flush unwanted sperm out of the system through urination, giving female spotted hyaenas full control over who they mate with and who fathers their young.

Homosexuality, gender fluidity, ‘role reversals’ and other behaviours covered by the LGBTQ+ umbrella are ubiquitous in nature, but one key point that came up whilst researching the tours was that even though behaviours such as homosexuality exists in the natural world, the only species that homophobia and similar prejudices exists in, is in humans! Certainly something to think about.

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