5 ‘out’ there plants and animals

From transgender trees to necking giraffes, the natural world is not held back by sexual or gender categories and labels. Here are a few examples taken from the 'Out in Oxford' project. 

  1. Snakes and Lizards 
    1. There are many organisms capable of reproducing without fertilisation of egg cells by sperm. This process, known as parthenogenesis, is rare in vertebrate animals, but it is found in some species of reptiles. In particular, some species of Whiptail Lizards are entirely female – there are no males. This is thought to be due to hybridisation between different species of Whiptail Lizards. As there are no males, there is no exchange of gametes or male-female sexual behaviour. Nonetheless, sexual behaviour is observed in these lizards, even though it does not contribute to sexual reproduction. This makes the Whiptail Lizard one of the few animals with well documented same-sex sexual behaviour. This behaviour goes beyond displays or occasional occurrences – ‘mating’ between females is regularly observed. Whiptail Lizards are therefore an important part of the study of same-sex behaviours in the natural world - written by JW.

  2. Bluehead Wrasse fish
    1. The Bluehead Wrasse fish is an important example of non-standard biological sex in nature. When aging, even after sexual maturity, some females may transition to become breeding males. The Bluehead Wrasse is not the only fish species to change sex. Some species of clownfish exhibit similar behaviour, with individuals changing from male to female. (Nemo’s father should have become his mother in the popular Pixar movie!) The Wrasse are not born with both male and female anatomy, but they change from one sex to the other in order to maintain a gender balance necessary for population stability. This process is called sequential hermaphroditism. As with the human transgender population the transition is neither a decision nor choice they make. These sex changes are due to the levels of hormones in the environment, based upon the ratios between the sexes of Wrasse. A similar process is thought to be responsible for transgenderism in humans, but in this case due to the hormonal environment in the womb during development - written by Clara Barker.

  3. Giraffes 
    1. Out of the approximately 1500 species of animal that have been identified as displaying same-sex behaviour, the giraffe is one of the most studied. Males have been documented rubbing their necks on one another’s bodies (‘necking’), heads, necks, loins and thighs before engaging in same-sex mounting. In fact, these engagements occur more frequently than male-female mounting, which only accounts for 7% of all observations. One in 20 male giraffes are believed to be necking another male at any given time. Observing their interactions helps us understand that homosexuality is not just prevalent in humans. Sexuality is just as non-binary or fluid in animals. The sexual behaviour of giraffes shows us that homosexuality is a normal occurrence in our world - written by Aaron Worsley. 
  4. European Yew trees
    1. Have you heard about the “transgender tree”?  In a church graveyard in Fortingall, Scotland, there is a European Yew thought to be several thousands of years old. This type of yew has a clear distinction between the sexes as the males produce pollen and the females produce bright red berries. It was something of a surprise when, after many years of displaying male characteristics, this ancient tree suddenly sprouted berries from a branch. In reality, rather than being a transgender sex-change, this is actually a display of intersex behaviour and is not uncommon in other conifers. The reason for this is thought to be a change in the tree’s hormones, creating another example in nature of non-binary sex and showing that such things are not always black and white. The yew tree here in the Botanic Garden is also male. However, in the 1980s and in 2012 it too started to produce female cones on some of its branches - written by Clara Barker.
  5. Saucer Magnolia plants
    1. The Saucer Magnolia is one of many hermaphrodite (intersex) plants, which have both male and female organs in their flowers. Other examples growing around the Botanic Garden include roses, lilies and asters. Hermaphroditism allows these plants to reproduce by themselves, as well as with other plants. This is gives them a great survival advantage, as it means they can reproduce frequently, even in isolated environments. In the early 19th century, French army officer Etiene Soulange-Bodin created the Saucer Magnolia by cross-breeding two different Magnolia species (Magnolia denudata and Magnolia liliiflora). The Saucer Magnolia is hardier than its parent plants and blossoms during the early spring time. It has delicately coloured flowers, with petals that turn from pink to white at the tips. Given that the Saucer Magnolia has two-tonal petals and two sex organs in each flower, it is a perfect example of how non-binary living things can be beautiful. It is prized as an ornamental shrub and is often used to adorn gardens or outdoor spaces - written by Hetty Mosforth.