Nicole Cambré, a lawyer and photographer from Belgium, recently took some photos in Botswana that shot like a comet across social media over the weekend. They showed two lions, both with lush manes, cuddling at sunset in the tall grass and mounting each other.
Like other same-sex animal duos before them, the lions were quickly held up as symbols of the naturalness of homosexuality. “Gay pride!” the Daily Mail headlined its story. “Being gay isn’t wrong. Even lions are,” wrote a Twitter user with the handle Papi. Another wondered what the lions would think of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”
National Geographic then debunked the assumption by quoting a lion expert who said that the lighter-maned lion who was mounted was likely one of a rare number of female lions with a mane. Cambré then debunked that by posting a video to her website that, she told The Washington Post on Monday, showed that the blonder lion had also done some mounting and left no doubt that its anatomy was also very male.
Who knew lion cuddling could be so complicated? Scientists, that’s who.
Interpreting homosexual behavior in animals, which has been observed in upwards of 450 species but is far from common, remains tricky territory for researchers. And proclaiming it as a reflection of human sexuality is something most anthropomorphism-allergic scientists are loathe to do.
“It’s a bromance, not ‘Brokeback Mountain,'” Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota professor who is one of the world’s top experts on African lions, said of the behavior in the photos. But, he added, “I don’t think you have to look at animals to justify what humans do. Our biology is far more complicated.”
Here’s what he means by bromance: Unlike in “The Lion King”-influenced popular imagination, one male lion doesn’t command a group of lions. Two to four males usually form what is known as a coalition, Packer said, and they work together to take over a pride, which refers only to female lions. Those males depend on each other to fend off other coalitions, which is crucial to being able “to reproduce – with females,” Packer said.
As a result, the males – Packer said Cambré’s photos showed two males, based on their equally large head size – are often very affectionate with each other. “It’s incredibly sweet to see,” he said.
The mounting she captured is rarer and, Packer noted, “more persistent than I’ve ever seen in the wild.” But, he said, male lions sometimes do that when they seem nervous about an encroaching coalition. Or they might be in the mood when there aren’t available females around. Cambré noted that a nearby lioness appeared to be pregnant, which would make her unavailable.
“If there was a receptive female that would wander up about that point, they would stop that,” said Packer, who compared the lions’ mounting to a dog humping a human’s leg.
But Packer said it’s not “mating,” as some headlines declared. To be specific: Lions let out a “distinctive yowling noise” when they finish the deed, Packer said, and that didn’t happen in Cambré’s videos.
What does all this say about the nature of homosexuality, including in humans? Probably not much, Packer said. But that hasn’t stopped people from holding up animals’ sexual behavior to make a point about human sexuality, often with political ends.
After two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo paired up and raised a chick together more than a decade ago, gay rights activists embraced them as heroes, and a children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three,” was based on the penguins’ story. The book was reviled by Christian right groups, and it was still on the American Library Association’s most-banned book list in 2014. Those same groups celebrated when one of the penguins left the other for a female.
This year, boxer Manny Pacquiao was assailed for saying people in same-sex relationships are “worse than animals,” who, he asserted, don’t form such relationships.
But it’s more complicated than that. Some animals do form same-sex partnerships, and a lot more of them display homosexual behavior from time to time, said Paul Vasey, a psychology professor at Canada’s University of Lethbridge who has long studied female Japanese monkeys that mount each other during mating season.
But those behaviors happen so sporadically in most species that there is not enough data to build solid studies on — or draw conclusions about whether any of those animals are actually “gay” — Vasey said.
“Whether there’s any kind of same-sex sexual preference going on, that’s left entirely to the imagination in the sense that the data just don’t exist to demonstrate one way or the other,” he said. Being “exclusively gay, so to speak…is exceptionally rare in the animal kingdom.”
Members of only two species have been proved to demonstrate that exclusivity, Vasey said: humans and domesticated rams. He said those examples raise an “enormous evolutionary puzzle” that he has devoted his career to: If reproduction drives evolution, why would any person or any animal engage in sex that cannot result in offspring?
But that question has almost nothing to do with one sighting of male lions cuddling in the savanna, Vasey said.
“Just to look at that mounting behavior between lions and say it’s evidence of homosexuality — if by homosexuality you mean that male lion prefers male partners — there’s no evidence of that,” he said.