Nature’s Drag Queens

Some men like to dress up as women. Personally, I am not a big fan of these drag queens, but I must say some look convincingly female. But is this behavior strictly human? Or do other animals organize the occasional gender-switch-party? It turns out that nature has her fair share of drag queens.

Sneaky Sam

Meet Sam, a giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama). He is not very popular with the ladies. But Sam is man with a plan. When he sees other Sepia’s floating by, madly in love, Sam turns into Samantha. Disguised as a female, he closes in and awaits his chance. When the male is not paying any attention (there is so much to see and do in the ocean!), Sam quickly changes form and tries to copulate with the perplexed female. This strategy – sexual mimicry – appears to be quite successful and many sneaky males succeed in fertilizing some females.

Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling from NSW, Australia - Australian Giant Cuttlefish
Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Richard Ling from NSW, Australia – Australian Giant Cuttlefish

Peaceful Pete

Let’s leave the ocean behind and take a walk through the forest. If you are lucky, you will be able to see Pete sitting on a branch, whistling happily. But why is he so happy? First of all, Pete is a Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) and who wouldn’t be happy to be a Pied Flycatcher. And second, Pete owns a very nice territory in the woods that is visited be a variety of curious females. His territory is close to Derek’s, a very aggressive male (he is known in the woods as Dangerous Derek). But why can Pete live next to Derek without being chased away, like most other males? Because Pete looks like a female and Derek obviously allows females in his little forest patch.

"Flickr - Rainbirder - Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)" by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland - Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Rainbirder_-_Pied_Flycatcher_(Ficedula_hypoleuca).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Flickr_-_Rainbirder_-_Pied_Flycatcher_(Ficedula_hypoleuca).jpg
Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland

In both cases, Sneaky Sam the Sepia and Peaceful Pete the Pied Flycatcher (talking about alliterations!), looking like a female clearly has its benefits. Sam is able to copulate with females without much effort and Pete does not suffer from other aggressive males, like Derek. These advantages make sure that evolution preserves such cunning strategies (Baldrick would be proud – inside joke for the Blackadder-fans). What the benefits are for human drag queens remains a mystery to me. If you have any idea, please comment below.

References

Norman, M., Finn, J., & Tregenza, T. (1999). Female impersonation as an alternative reproductive strategy in giant cuttlefish Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 266 (1426), 1347-1349 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1999.0786

Slagsvold, T. & Sætre, G.-P. (1991). Evolution of Plumage Color in Male Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca): Evidence for Female Mimicry Evolution, 45 (4), 910-917

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