WNYC Studios’ Lulu Miller had an idea for Pride Month: “a fun little science story about same-sex mating and relationships in nature.” But “The Seagulls,” the episode of Radiolab, which Miller hosts, that will air on June 2 is not the cheerfully light-hearted pride-meets-science show she set out to create.
Everything changed when she found a 1977 study published in Science magazine about lesbian seagulls. Researchers George and Molly Hunt were observing the gulls on Santa Barbara Island, 38 miles off the California coast, tallying over a thousand broods. They found that about 10 percent of the nests had six eggs instead of the usual two or three. It was only after euthanizing and dissecting a pair of the more fecund partners and realizing both had ovaries that the Hunts could explain the yield rates. The females would have their eggs fertilized by male gulls, then incubate and raise their clutches with a female partner. And not only were the female-female gull pairs nesting together, but they were also mating cloaca to cloaca — the same way heterosexual gulls copulate.
Those Santa Barbara gulls are far from the only queer creatures documented in “The Seagulls.” The podcast includes a cacophonous procession of queer creatures from phyla spanning the animal kingdom: gay bonobo yelps usher in squeaking manatees; homosexual Amazon dolphins that love cuddling screech alongside male bottlenose dolphins who have sex (with each other) roughly 2.4 times per hour. Queer rattlesnakes and marsupials harmonize with homosexual bats who have sex upside-down while flying.
The majority of those animals exhibit bisexual mating tendencies. But among wild sheep in the Rocky Mountains, 8 percent of males are exclusively homosexual, Miller says. And whiptail lizards are also exclusively homosexual — and all female. They’re a single-sex species that reproduces asexually and “can actually reproduce genetically diverse offspring,” Miller says. “That was such a shattering of the basic rules of how things work for me.”
As she did more research, Miller found “this whole broader story about the long, complex history of the ways in which scientific documentation of homosexuality in nature was suppressed over the centuries.”
The text most pivotal to her research was Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999) by Bruce Bagemihl. The book collects centuries of evidence of homosexual animal behavior largely omitted from the scientific record.
Even the Hunts’ seagull study was not published right away. The Auk, an ornithology journal to which the researchers initially submitted their report, rejected it because its findings were deemed incongruous. After the study was published, the Hunts were condemned because of the study’s implication that homosexuality was, in fact, natural. Congress intervened, temporarily blocking the National Science Foundation budget because it had partially funded the Hunts’ research.
Evidence of queerness in nature had been so suppressed that Miller herself, “even as someone who loves science, does a show about animals, and is queer,” didn’t know about it until she was 40 years old.
The anti-gay moralizing that infiltrated science has had lasting effects on politics and culture. Miller herself felt its influence. She remembers, as a child raised in a world that deemed homosexuality unnatural, learning about gay penguins at the zoo and explaining their behavior away as a symptom of captivity: “Maybe there weren’t enough options,” she remembers thinking.
But as “The Seagulls” shows, animal homosexuality is anything but rare. “This is a story of how a belief could stay intact and really warp what people can see, even people in the profession of clear looking,” Miller says.
There’s no shortage of queer animals, and homosexuality may even have adaptive advantages. Miller says brood data for queer black swans show heterosexual pairings experience a 30 percent cygnet (baby swan) survival rate, while homosexual pairs fledge 80 percent. According to the study, male-male pairs tend to commandeer larger pond territories, leaving them with more and better space for rearing their clutch.
She’s hoping for a paradigm shift in the way we conceive of homosexuality in nature: queerness, Miller says, “has always been a part of what makes an ecosystem strong, or a species thrive.”
It’s not just swans who experience a version of this bisexual advantage. In many species, sexual fluidity enhances “conflict resolution, stress relief, hunting alliances, social fitness, pleasure, and survival rate of offspring,” she says.
Miller lives in Chicago now but grew up near Boston and frequently visited Wellfleet, which, she says, “feels more like home than the suburb where we grew up.” It’s something to do with “bearberries and pine needles and how softly you can walk,” she says. “It feels like this amazing mix of gentle and wild.”
The revelations about bias in science that “The Seagulls” unveils turned into something even deeper for Miller. It became “a personal and emotional story in terms of realizing the ways in which I had inherited this belief that came from, like, the 1200s,” she says.
As for the medium, Miller is passionate about radio’s ability to give listeners “an intimate safari to this side of nature that has been really hidden,” she says.
Her vision was “to use words and music to help create really beautiful cinematic scenes in listeners’ minds of the natural world, and let them fill it in,” Miller says. She hopes listeners will imagine the lush scenes taking place wherever is “really sacred to them.”
Male white-tailed deer are known for their velvety horns and for occasionally forming single-sex herds that rove in mini-societies of two to seven. Those packs mate with each other, also taking in and raising parentless fauns.
For her part, “my velvet horn deer scene is probably in the Cape Cod woods,” Miller says.
“The Seagulls” will air on Friday, June 2 at radiolab.org and on podcast platforms
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on June 1, incorrectly reported that Lulu Miller is the producer, not the host, of Radiolab.