The Internet was buzzing this week with interest over images that appear to show two male lions engaging in homosexual behavior. The photos and videos, shot by photographer Nicole Cambré in Botswana in March, feature two long-maned lions looking very cuddly. At one point, one lion mounts and humps the other.
By their social media posts and online comments, people seemed fascinated and elated to see what looked like same-sex behavior in these beloved wild cats. But these "gay" lions are not gay.
"It's affectionate, and it's kind of reinforcing the dominant status of the one that's doing the humping," Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, told Live Science. "You see that in monkeys all the time, and it doesn't make the newspapers that there are homosexual monkeys out there."
The male-on-male behavior, Packer said, is fairly common in lions and many other species, and should not be considered proof of homosexual partnerships in animals. [10 Gay Animals in the Wild]
Although these photos don't show animals breaking any barriers, the pictures are still windows into an important, intimate relationship for lions, Packer said. Male lions are up against serious competition when it comes to finding females. This prompts them to team up in groups of two or three, called coalitions, to work together and win mates. Not only are coalitions vital to the lions' reproductive success, but from what scientists can tell, these relationships are also meaningful and involve caring, Packer said.
"It's really scary being a lone male lion out there, and he might find a companion," said Packer. "And when you see two solitary males who've lived in fear who suddenly now have a companion, they're so happy. It's amazing. They're so affectionate to each other." They are, however, not sexual partners, he added.
Packer compared male-male mounting to dogs humping a leg. They are making a point with the behavior. In the case of the lions, the behavior represents a mix of affection and re-establishment of the pecking order. In this pair, the dark-maned male is the dominant member of the partnership over the blonde male, Packer said. [See Photos of the Biggest Lions on Earth]
It was obvious that the lions were not participating in any type of penetrative act, Packer said. Lions, he said, ejaculate very quickly after entering a female and let out a characteristic yowl at the moment of ejaculation. These lions seemed to be humping longer than is typical in a sexual act, he said. Beyond that, he said he found nothing noteworthy about the "viral" images.
As for the possibility put forth by National Geographic that one of these lions was, in fact, female, Packer said that idea was ill-conceived. To his eye, the lions are both clearly male, as evidenced by body size, head size and the presence of male genitalia when viewed from behind, he said.
In email interview with Live Science, photographer Cambré said she shares this belief, citing her videos as almost certain proof that both lions are male.
The idea that a female lion could have a mane comes from previous reports of one or two maned lions lacking male genitalia that were spotted some years ago in Botswana. Manes require substantial testosterone in order to grow, said Packer, who noted he has seen males unable to grow manes but never a female who had one. This possibility has piqued his interest, though, and he has planned a meeting with the man who commented in the National Geographic piece about the evidence for maned lionesses, he said.
Cambré noted that the, even if the maned females from previous reports do exist, they were seen in an area far from where her photos and videos were taken. "As far as I am aware the maned females were seen near Mombo on Chief's island in Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango delta," said Cambré."The Kwando concession is in the north in the Kwando-Linyanti wetlands so there is some distance between the two so it is not really the same area." The distance between those two areas seems to be about 100 miles.
She added that the Kwando safari guides have reported sightings of male lions that may have crossed into the area from Namibia, one of which has a light mane and is collared, like the blonde-maned male in the images. Cambré has reached out to the Kwando Carnivore Project in Namibia to see if they collared this lion and have any further information about it.
Whether wild animals can be gay depends on how a person defines that term. Doting male-male bonding that can include sexual activities and attempts by males to mate with anything that might be mate-able (including other males) has been seen in many species, including several types of primates and insects. Researchers have also observed that some birds establish long-term same-sex pairings.