Tough ruffs and sneaky sex
‘Love is between a man and a woman’ – a belief that seems to divide every modern society. But while humans wage wars over sexuality, the animal kingdom goes about its freaky business completely undisturbed. Clownfish flip from fathers to females; flatworms are both at once. Fifty different types of lizard have formed all-woman empires that give birth to their own clones – talk about smashing the patriarchy!
Nature is full of these pioneers of peculiar procreation, but one of the most flamboyant examples comes from the wintry swamps of northern Europe. Say hello to the ruff – a strong contender for ‘World’s Most Overdressed Bird’.
Lek it or lump it
During the northern winter, ruffs are sociable and calm. Flocks of up to one million birds shed their ridiculous neck frills and journey south for a tropical holiday on the African plains. Here, they patter around the fields in relative harmony. The second they return home, though, it’s war. Males gather together on breeding grounds called leks. Here, they fight beak and nail to woo the females standing on the sidelines [watch the birds in action here].
That’s a lie – it’s not so simple. Ruffs with dark collars (independent males) are the most common, and compete fiercely with each other to impress their future mates. Ruffs with white collars (satellite males) simply wander between leks, seducing females while black-collared males are occupied elsewhere. These different appearances and behaviours are completely controlled by a single point in the ruffs’ DNA, which has remained unchanged for as long as four million years. This is exceptionally rare in nature, but the details are very complex [read more here and here].
For centuries, naturalists thought this was the full story – a sexual system as black and white as the birds themselves. But in 2006, a savvy pair of Dutch scientists discovered a third type of male hiding in plain sight. How did they escape detection for so long? By masquerading as females, down to the very last feather.
Faeders: the full female illusion
These genderbending males are known as faeders; while the name actually comes from an Old English word for ‘father’, fading into the background is exactly what they do. Females and faeders both sport drab grey outfits year round, dispensing with the gaudy collars. The faeders are slightly larger, and a bit stripier during the breeding season, but the illusion is convincing.
Crossdressing is all well and good, but why bother? As it turns out, the sexual success of the faeders may be dependent on their feminine appearance.
Sneaky sex and suspicious sexualities
When females are impressed by the lekking displays of dressed-up males, they crouch down and prepare for the cloacal kiss. In the rare event that the other males don’t notice the eager female, the faeders can race in, do their dirty deed, and scuttle back into the crowd. Faeder males also have huge testes – more sperm is thought to improve their chances of parenting a new generation. Chances for sneaky sex are few and far between, so every attempt is crucial!
Looking just like a female seems to help these faeders gain a footing in the sexual stakes – but it also means they deal with their fair share of same-sex action from overexcited males. Shockingly, keen-eyed observers have noticed that faeders are ‘on top‘ in half of their male-on-male matings; when real females procreate, they always end up on the bottom. Does this mean the collared males recognise the faeders as males? Are they knowingly entering into these homosexual rendezvous? Scandalous!
Beyond the binary
We have lots left to learn about the fascinating lives of ruffs, but these gay, crossdressing birds are just one species of thousands that challenge our sexual traditions. Evolution has painted our natural world with all the colours of the wind. If we open our eyes and our minds, more surprising discoveries are sure to come!
Stickybeaking for more tales of sexual fluidity? Check out the links below: