February is LGBTQ+ history month and to celebrate the Museum of Zoology is sharing the story of how intersex whales are changing the way we think about ‘gender’ (or ‘sex’) in the animal kingdom.
This page has been written with a young audience and families in mind.
When we think of wild animals, one of the first questions we ask is, is it a boy or a girl? The answer to this question will shape our thoughts of how that animal might behave. Try these examples together:
Here’s two adult penguins with a chick. How are they related to one another?
Same-sex penguin couples can be found adopting eggs and raising unwanted chicks, just like Roy and Silo in And Tango Makes Three
Can you see the tiny young seahorse next to the larger one? Do you think they are related?
This is a male seahorse and its young. Male seahorses will carry the eggs in a pouch on their tummy until they hatch.
It is easy to make these assumptions, even when we do not know for certain if an animal is female or male. In fact, on a coral reef a third of the individuals seen are both sexes at the same time!*
Today we would like to talk about whales. This is because some whales, dolphins and porpoises have been found to be intersex, which means they have both female and male reproductive organs.
Whales are very sociable animals. Communicating with each other to share knowledge and understanding through song. Some species live together in large groups and can even help each other to feed and survive. In these groups, whales can take on a useful role that best fits them, and not a role decided by whether they are female, male or intersex.
Joan Roughgarden: let’s think outside the binary box!
Joan Roughgarden is an evolutionary biologist who studies sexuality and gender identity in the animal kingdom. Joan is also transgender.
Just as our own ideas of gender can incorrectly place an intersex whale into a male or female group, Joan argues that scientists often find it hard to break the habit of trying to understand animals by using human stereotypes of what makes a male or female. It is difficult to shake off the assumptions we make so automatically.
She therefore supports and encourages the work of LGBTQ+ scientists, like herself, who can improve our understanding of the natural world by offering a wider diversity of perspectives.
Make a whale bookmark
You will need:
- Coloured paper
- Crayons, pencils or pens
- Take a square of paper, 15cm by 15cm is best but any size will do. Follow the video below to fold it into your page marker:
- Choose your whale species. There’s around 80 in total!
Once you’ve decided on a whale, get customising!
- Create a tail. You can either…
Have your tail at the bottom of your book mark by carefully drawing and cutting a whale tail shape out.
…or you can use a different piece of paper to draw and cut out a tail, then glue it to the top (for a diving whale) or the side (for a swimming whale).
- Decide on your whale mouth. Does your whale species have teeth or baleen? Create these with extra pieces of paper and then glue them on the inside of the ‘mouth’.
- Create fins using small triangular pieces of paper.
- A water spurt can be made using thin pieces of white paper and cutting a small hole in the top to thread inside.
- Decorate your whale with markings, barnacles. Don’t forget to add some eyes at the side and nostrils at the top of the head.
- When you are happy with your whale, it’s ready to be used in your favourite book!
Whales and Rainbows
All you need to make a rainbow is some water and sunlight. A whale spurt on a sunny day can be the perfect environment for a small rainbow to form.
Therefore, we can argue that there is a whale at the end of every rainbow.
Happy LGBTQ+ History Month from the Museum of Zoology!
*Listen to Joan Roughgarden speak here: Sexual diversity in nature – TEDxAmazonia
Find out more about LGBT+ History Month here: lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk
For more rainbow family activities from the Bridging Binaries (LGBT) project see: Look, Think, Do: Bust of Antinous from the Fitzwilliam Museum and Look, Think, Do: Rosa Bonheur a pony in a landscape