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17 photos of animals that prove there's nothing natural about traditional gender roles

These animals demonstrate the greatness of nature and its stubborn unwillingness to conform to human expectations for the way things "should be."

animals, nature, gender roles, traditional
Image via Pixabay.

We have our eyes on you too.

Traditional gender roles are "natural," goes the common refrain.

Heterosexuality? That's natural too, apparently. Staying one gender your whole life? Definitely natural.

There's only one problem: Nature (and science) beg to disagree.


In reality, male and female animals set up their relationships thousands of different ways in the wild. In many species, males are the primary caretakers of the next generation while females ignore their offspring and mate promiscuously. Even the existence of "male" and "female" as distinct categories is often not so clear in certain species.

Some animals have the ability to change sex to respond to various outside pressures and conditions.

A few can even mate with themselves.

Here are 17 animals that demonstrate the greatness of nature and its stubborn unwillingness to conform to human expectations for the way things "should be."

1. Jacanas

birds, science, nature, incubation

"Mom went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back."

​Photo by Ozan Kill

Ask any tropical bird out there, and they'll tell you that male jacanas are pretty much the best dads of the bunch. Not only do male jacanas stick around the nest to incubate the eggs and raise their offspring, they even carry them under-wing when they fly.

Meanwhile, female jacanas are ... not exactly super nurturing. After gathering up a harem of nearly half a dozen males and laying her eggs, the female jacana splits in order to fly around, murder the young of rival females, and mate with their former partners.

This is considered charming.

2. Clown fish

species, environment, reefs, fish

Clown fish were invented by Disney/Pixar in 2003.

Photo by Rachel Hisko on Unsplash

Like many species of reef fish, clown fish can, and frequently do, change sex. Unlike most species of reef fish however, all clown fish are born male and are led (in familial groups) by a dominant female.

When she dies, the next-biggest male simply ... becomes female and takes charge of the group.

What you just heard was the sound of a billion other species slapping themselves on the forehead at the same time, wondering why they didn't think of that, realizing it's now too late and that now they'd just be, like, hopping on the trend.

3. African buffalo

leadership, hierarchies, grazing, grasslands

Everyone is getting out there for an afternoon stroll.

Photo by Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons.

Not only are female buffalos are responsible for coordinating the movements of the entire herd — they do it democratically. When it's time to find a new grazing spot, each female takes a turn standing up and gazing in the direction they want to travel, and when they're done, the whole group moves that way.

While status hierarchies exist within herds, the elections are equitable — one cow, one vote.

Change You Can Moo-Lieve in. Make the Grasslands Great Again.

4. Bees

matriarchy, male drones, hive, honey

"Aaaaaaagh! Aaaaaagh! Aaaaaagh!" — Nicholas Cage.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Bees famously take the matriarchy to the extreme. A single queen bee oversees thousands of smaller female workers and male drones.

While most bees live, at most, a few weeks, the queen typically survives several years before the hive goes looking for a new queen to start the cycle over again. All to advance the species-wide goal of refusing to fly out of your car even though all four windows are down.

5. Komodo dragons

komodo dragon, eggs, offspring, evolution

Party out with your tongue out... alone even.

Photo by Mark Dumont/Wikimedia Commons.

Female komodo dragons can lay viable eggs that produce offspring without a male partner, which pretty much explains why komodo dragon Tinder never truly caught on.

6. Praying mantises

copulation, life cycle, insects, hunters

Not as romantic as it looks.

Photo by Oliver Koemmerling/Wikimedia Commons.

Mantis males are often smaller than mantis females, a discrepancy that leaves many males feeling insecure, as it enables females to frequently — though not always — eat their heads during sex.

7. Common reed frogs

amphibians, forrest, frogs, reproduction

So many choices for the day ahead.

Photo by ChriKo/Wikimedia Commons.

These tiny, resilient amphibians can change sex from female to male, allowing them to successfully reproduce if they suddenly find themselves surrounded by frogs of the same sex.

This ability makes them one of the most successful species on Earth at inspiring anxious Sam Neil monologues.

8. South American marmosets

monkeys, jungle, troops, community

"Hey, pa? You ... you wanna ... play catch?"

Photo by Maxim Bilovitskiy/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Creative_Commons.

Female marmosets tend not to be terribly interested in their babies. A few weeks after giving birth, they're mostly out of their kids' lives forever.

Marmoset dads, on the other hand, are excellent caretakers, feeding, grooming, and transporting their young as well as coaching Marmoset Little League and always batting their kid cleanup.

9. Spotted hyenas

aggression, dominance, African plains, arid climates

Someone has to lead this party.

Photo via Pixabay.

Not only are female hyenas stronger and more aggressive than males, male and female hyena genitals are nearly identical in appearance. They're so similar that it's extremely difficult to tell the difference with the naked eye, which ultimately doomed the '70s game show "What Sex is That Hyena?" to cancellation after just half a season.

10. Seahorses

eggs, mating process, sea life, oceans

"OK, so. I need a really big favor."

Photo by Mikhail Preobrazhenskiy on Unsplash

While males of numerous species nurture their offspring, the male seahorse takes things several steps further. During the mating process, he receives eggs from the female and not only fertilizes them, but carries the offspring until they hatch.

A recent poll of male seahorses found that an overwhelming majority experience a secret surge of satisfaction when their partners get kidney stones.

11. Cuttlefish

coloration, species rivalries, genetics, fish

Blumph.

Photo by Michal B. on Unsplash

Unlike middle school boys across America, male cuttlefish don't have a lot of hang-ups about appearing feminine to their peers. Masters of camouflage, these future delicious fried antipasto will often alter their coloration in order to pass for female around rival males.

If an actual female is around, they'll leave the other half of their body as is, appearing half male and half female.

12. Topi antelopes

Africa, herd animals, promiscuity, food

Oh hey.

Photo by Whit Welles/Wikimedia Commons.

Female topi antelopes are not only sexually promiscuous, but when it's time to mate, they almost always make the first move. In some cases, female topis pester male antelopes for sex so relentlessly that the male has to physically fight them off. (Cue dozens of Facebook commenters yelling at male antelopes for complaining about something that's "obviously awesome" and insisting they're lucky and should "just be grateful for the attention.")

13. Laysan albatrosses

birds, mating, wildlife

"Al." "Al."

Photo by Patte David/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Public Domain Images.

Some female albatrosses mate in female-female pairs, often for life.

(Side note: All male albatrosses are named Al Batross. Every single one of them. That's a proven fact).

14. Banana slugs

slugs, sex organs, horror

"When I think about you..."

Image via Pixabay.

A hermaphroditic species, banana slugs have both male and female sex organs and occasionally mate with themselves.

Though banana slugs do seem to prefer mating with other slugs, doing so typically ends with one slug chewing the other's penis off, because nature is a cavalcade of endless, random horror.

15. Orcas

whales, pods, matriarchal, peers

"You have to hit the home button twice, grandma."

Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash

Killer whales live in matriarchal pods, and female whales are more likely to take charge of the group than their male peers.

The oldest female whales are often the go-to source for information about where to find food, and in exchange for keeping the whole family alive, the younger whales patiently show them time and again how to use the iPad.

16. Emperor penguins

documentaries, Antartica, frozen tundra, trekking

"Where is that voice coming from?"

Photo via Pixabay.

Anyone who's seen "March of the Penguins" knows that male emperor penguins guard their eggs tightly, perilously balancing them on their feet while their female companions go off to do traditional woman stuff like trekking across the Antarctic tundra, diving for food in the freezing cold ocean, and pleading with Morgan Freeman to shut the hell up so they can focus on not being eaten by seals for like five goddamn seconds.

17. Bonobos

genetics, sex, apes, animal kingdom

"Mmmmmm. Yeah. Mmmmm. All right. Yeah." — Bonobos, all the time.

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

The female-led bonobos have invented perhaps the most ingenious way of preventing intra-species violence in the entire animal kingdom. Basically, everyone just has sex with everyone else — males with females, females with females, males with males, in pretty much every kind of way imaginable.

The near-constant hetero-homo-orgiastic delight that results pretty much prevents anyone from being mad at anyone ever and unites the species around the common goal of being the best apes ever invented.

We share about 99% of our DNA with bonobos.

popular

Scientists tested 3 popular bottled water brands for nanoplastics using new tech, and yikes

The results were alarming—an average of 240,000 nanoplastics per 1 liter bottle—but what does it mean for our health?

Suzy Hazelwood/Canva

Columbia University researchers tested bottled water for nanoplastics and found hundreds of thousands of them.

Evian, Fiji, Voss, SmartWater, Aquafina, Dasani—it's impressive how many brands we have for something humans have been consuming for millennia. Despite years of studies showing that bottled water is no safer to drink than tap water, Americans are more consuming more bottled water than ever, to the tune of billions of dollars in bottled water sales.

People cite convenience and taste in addition to perceived safety for reasons they prefer bottle to tap, but the fear factor surrounding tap water is still a driving force. It doesn't help when emergencies like floods cause tap water contamination or when investigations reveal issues with lead pipes in some communities, but municipal water supplies are tested regularly, and in the vast majority of the U.S., you can safely grab a glass of water from a tap.

And now, a new study on nanoplastics found in three popular bottled water brands is throwing more data into the bottled vs. tap water choice.

Researchers from Columbia University used a new laser-guided technology to detect nanoplastics that had previously evaded detection due to their miniscule size. The new technology can detect, count and analyze and chemical structure of nanoparticles, and they found seven different major types of plastic: polyamide, polypropylene, polyethylene, polymethyl methacrylate, polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate.

In contrast to a 2018 study that found around 300 plastic particles in an average liter of bottled water, the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January of 2024 found 240,000 nanoplastic particles per liter bottle on average between the three brands studied. (The name of the brands were not indicated in the study.)

As opposed to microplastics, nanoplastics are too small to be seen by microscope. Their size is exactly why experts are concerned about them, as they are small enough to invade human cells and potentially disrupt cellular processes.

“Micro and nanoplastics have been found in the human placenta at this point. They’ve been found in human lung tissues. They’ve been found in human feces; they’ve been found in human blood,” study coauthor Phoebe Stapleton, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University’s Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy told CNN Health,

We know that nanoplastics are making their way into our bodies. We just don't have enough research yet on what that means for our health, and we still have more questions than answers. How many nanoplastics does it take to do damage and/or cause disease? What kinds of damage or disease might they cause? Is whatever effect they might have cumulative? We simply don't have answers to these questions yet.

That's not to say there's no cause for concern. We do know that certain levels of microplastic exposure have been shown to adversely affect the viability of cells. Nanoplastics are even smaller—does that mean they are more likely to cause cellular damage? Science is still working that out.

According to Dr. Sara Benedé of the Spanish National Research Council’s Institute of Food Science Research, it's not just the plastics themselves that might cause damage, but what they may bring along with them. “[Microparticles and nanoparticles] have the ability to bind all kinds of compounds when they come into contact with fluids, thus acting as carriers of all kinds of substances including environmental pollutants, toxins, antibiotics, or microorganisms,” Dr. Benedé told Medical News Today.

Where is this plastic in water coming from? This study focused on bottled water, which is almost always packaged in plastic. The filters used to filter the water before bottling are also frequently made from plastic.

Is it possible that some of these nanoplastics were already present in the water from their original sources? Again, research is always evolving on this front, but microplastics have been detected in lakes, streams and other freshwater sources, so it's not a big stretch to imagine that nanoplastics may be making their way into freshwater ecosystems as well. However, microplastics are found at much higher levels in bottled water than tap water, so it's also not a stretch to assume that most of the nanoplastics are likely coming from the bottling process and packaging rather than from freshwater sources.

The reality is, though, we simply don't know yet.

“Based on other studies we expected most of the microplastics in bottled water would come from leakage of the plastic bottle itself, which is typically made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic,” lead author Naixin Qian, a doctoral student in chemistry at Columbia University, told CNN Health. “However, we found there’s actually many diverse types of plastics in a bottle of water, and that different plastic types have different size distributions. The PET particles were larger, while others were down to 200 nanometers, which is much, much smaller.”

We need to drink water, and we need to drink safe water. At this point, we have plenty of environmental reasons for avoiding bottled water unless absolutely necessary and opting for tap water instead. Even if there's still more research to be done, the presence of hundreds of thousands of nanoplastics in bottled water might just be another reason to make the switch.

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