Aberrant sexual behaviour (in animals)

I have to make it clear right from the start that this blog refers to animals and their sexual behaviour. With regard to humans any discussion on sexual behaviour is emotive, controversial and can become highly personal. Therefore, I steer clear of that and only wish to mention that Y.N. Harari in his wonderful book “Sapiens” expresses the opinion that what happens in Nature and we can observe has to be “natural”. However, the whole issue becomes murky, when we consider terms like “normal” (being the norm, practiced by the majority), aberrant (deviant or anomalous), or strange and atypical.

In 1911 a certain Dr G.M Levick, a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s “Terra Nova” Expedition to Antarctica, being stationed at Cape Adare amongst a huge Adelie Penguin rookery, recorded something about the penguins’ sexual behaviour which he found so shocking that he felt compelled to write down his observation in Greek. What he saw were, as he described it “deprived sexual acts of hooligan males”, who were mating with dead female penguins. (Actually, he assumed they were females, but sexing penguins is almost impossible  -I know that for certain having visited Antarctica and observed penguins on many occasions-  and the males Dr Levick had seen to have attempted to mate with dead females might have mated with dead males as well. Perhaps that never entered his mind as it simply might have been too shocking for Dr Levick to think of that possibility too; but in ducks it has indeed been described by Kees Moeliker, which earned him an Ig-Nobel prize in 2003.) In any case, his observations on the deviant sexual behaviour of penguins were finally published in English in 2012, a hundred years late.

In 2015 the Chinese PhD-student Wang Jishen and I observed a male cicada trying to mate with another (but dead) male, which is certainly not normal for an amorous cicada male. And when you scan the internet for unusual mating partners you will come across an elephant that (obviously by mistake or out of frustration) has been photographed mounting a rhinoceros. You may even find a scientific report about fur seals copulating with king penguins, a very unusual combination of sex partners. That small cage birds sometimes appear to make mock copulations with the owner’s hand or finger and that captive ostriches court a human has been reported. Dogs have been seen to copulate with a hole in the ground and that a male dog may clasp a person’s leg and start making copulatory movements has also been documented  – something I have experienced myself. As a youngster collecting tadpoles and other pond life, I had also experienced how male toads grabbed the tip of my shoe and were seemingly mistaking it for the rotund body of a female. So, what leads to these erroneous and biologically useless “aberrant behaviours”, given that they will certainly not result in any offspring?’

Arousal has to have been there and recognition of a chance to engage in sexual activity must have involved some sense organs, in most cases the eyes; but odour perhaps as well. In any case, specific hormones must have been involved as they prepare an animal for the mating season. Furthermore, a signal, a trigger or clue must have come from the mounted individual and according to Desmond Morris the large hemispherical breasts of human females, resembling round buttocks, would explain the most common mating position of humans. (Oh dear, I did not intend to mention humans  -anyway, Morris’ is only one suggestion and other behavioural scientists have expressed different opinions). Some observers believe that sexual frustration is involved in erroneous matings, for example when a more appropriate sex partner cannot be found. However, in case of young animals, e.g. calves mounting each other and even the fur seal copulating with a penguin, the behaviour could be seen as a practice run for the “real thing”, a kind of sexual play copying adults. Another reason suggested by some, could have been aggression that turned into something else. What’s involved is not easy to decide and when horses and donkeys mate or lions and tigers do “it”, what do we call that then? Acts of tragic attraction!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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