Does transgenderism exist in nature? Some examples in birds and insects

A brown headed cowbird nestling (right) being raised by a warbler adult. Image credit: Audubon, Beth Hamel

The seventh in a series from the blog Gender and Sexuality in Nature, a 2016 UC Davis course organized by UM EEB alumnus Ash Zemenick (UM EEB B.S. 2011, Ph.D. UC Davis 2017) and Jacob Moore (B.S. University of Washington 2009, Ph.D. UC Davis 2017).

Being transgender myself, I have often wondered if there are similar manifestations of gender expression in other species. This discussion seemed like the perfect place to explore this topic. There were quite a few papers to choose from. I picked two papers about birds, and one about insects because I felt that they provided the clearest cut examples of transgenderism in nature and were both super interesting!

In the beginning of the quarter, we talked about gender being how an organism uses morphology and/or behavior to carry out a sexual role. So it makes sense then that if we can find examples of animals adopting behaviors typical of the opposite gender, or an individual developing morphology that mimics a gender different from their own, we can examine these cases as potential examples of transgenderism in nature. Remember that we also talked about the categories of sex being based upon the gametes produced by an individual. Males produce small gametes or sperm and females produce large gametes or eggs. These definitions can help us to remember the important difference between sex and gender so that we can resist the temptation to use these terms interchangeably. That really doesn’t work well when we are describing the multiple scenarios of gender expression that we see in nature.

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For materials and information on teaching sex- and gender-related topics in biology see www.projectbiodiversify.org/sex  Reposted with permission and with the caveat that these posts are several years old and Project Biodiversify and other efforts like Gender Inclusive Biology and other LBGTQIA2+ people are always working to improve and update.

A brown headed cowbird nestling (right) being raised by a warbler adult. Image credit: Audubon, Beth Hamel
A brown headed cowbird nestling (right) being raised by a warbler adult. Image credit: Audubon, Beth Hamel