Current Nature: Queer Ecology

Seth Engelbourg, Naturalist Educator and Program Manager at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation •

1 Queer Ecology Graphic
A partnership between the Linda Loring Nature Foundation and Nantucket Pride Month

Among the most famous of all scientific texts is On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest are taught in schools around the world and have shaped modern ecology as we know it. About a century before Darwin, Carl Linnaeus pioneered modern taxonomy, introducing binomial nomenclature and the classification of life that we still use today. Although these systems have been useful in the scientific understanding of nature, over time they have led us to favoring rigid, binary labels; something must either be live or not alive, wild or domestic, male or female. Yet, the reality of life is much more complex, and the more we try to categorize species with distinct labels, the more we end up with ‘exceptions.’ One example that many people know about is that mammals give live birth except platypuses and echidnas, which lay eggs. We also have a tendency when discussing survival of the fittest to imagine ‘fit’ as being physically strong, fast, and smart; think a cheetah chasing down an antelope. But Darwin never referenced physical fitness, his belief was that the individuals that survived and the species that evolved did so because their genes and adaptations were the right match for their environment. This constant pressure to find a niche has led to infinite adaptations many of which do not match commonly held assumptions.

Rather than trying to deal with all the ‘exceptions’, the field of Queer Ecology appreciates that nature is complex and tries to re-envision scientific language and theories to reflect reality more accurately. It also provides space to recognize that fluidity of biological sex and sexual orientations are not only common among flora and fauna but part of the process of natural selection. As species constantly adapt to their environment, complex sex, sexual orientation, and societal organizations evolved not as ‘exceptions’ or ‘unnatural accidents’ but because they were ‘fit.’

2 Slipper Snail
A stack of Common Atlantic Slipper Snails, these animals are sequential hermaphrodites, males are on top, females on the bottom, and they can change their sex as needed if any die.

At its heart scientific research seeks to question human beliefs and design studies that help us better understand the reality of nature. Rather than clinging to rigid theories, the scientific method allows us to design hypotheses and collect data to support those hypotheses. In this vein, Queer Ecology should not be viewed as a subversive movement but rather as a quintessential embodiment of science; a lens through which we may better understand the natural world.

Want to learn more? Come to a lecture at the Nantucket Atheneum, “Queer Ecology: How Nature Defies Expectations” on Friday, June 14th from 6:45 – 7:45pm. Put on in partnership by the Linda Loring Nature Foundation and Nantucket Pride Month, this riveting presentation will highlight the vast biological diversity found in local species; including hermaphroditism in Slipper Snails, parthenogenesis in sharks, colonial organisms such as Portuguese Man o’ War, and much more! I have always found the adaptations of Slipper Snails fascinating. This species of sea snail is common in our nearshore waters including Nantucket and Madaket Harbors. Their shells are also one of the most found items among local beachcombers, yet few people know about their ecology. Slipper Snails live stuck together in stacks and are sequential hermaphrodites, males are found at the top of the stack and females at the bottom. If any snails die and fall off, the rest of the stack can change their sex as needed based on their position.

3 Man o War
A Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the beach. Contrary to popular beliefs, this species is not a jellyfish, but a siphonophore; a colonial organism made up of small zooids. Each of these zooids may look morphologically different, but are genetically identical

Interested in delving even deeper? On Saturday, June 15th we will follow-up on the presentation with a nature walk and further discussion at the LLNF property; full details here. Both programs are free and open to the public.

This June as we celebrate and provide allyship for Nantucket Pride Month, please remember to treat all with respect and embrace the beautiful diversity found in both humans and the natural world around us.

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

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