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The ‘strumpet’ lioness: how nature subverts clichéd sex roles

In this essay from author and zoologist Lucy Cooke’s Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal, a female lion exemplifies the multifarious nature of sex and gender in the animal kingdom – and what humans might learn from it.

Lucy Cooke

I once roared so loud I stole a lion’s girlfriend. The roar itself didn’t actually leave my mouth, it was a recording of a male lion, played out of a loudspeaker. I was in the Maasai Mara with Dr Ludwig Siefert, a lion specialist, who was demonstrating the use of audio playback in deciphering lion communication. This involved the two of us standing with our heads poking out of the top of his jeep, under the cover of night, pumping the sound of a dominant male’s roar into another lion’s territory, an audacious way to pursue scientific enquiry and which struck me as the feline equivalent of screaming, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough,’ outside a rough pub at chucking-out time.

At first I felt faintly silly projecting our tinny growls into the night. An MP4 and a portable speaker can hardly do justice to the roar of the lion, which at 114 dB is the loudest of any of the big cats. The roar itself is generally less majestic than the one that starts an MGM movie – more of a series of rumbling low grunts – but with the bass-y resonance to carry for up to five miles. I assumed that our distorted facsimile would arouse little interest. But after a few minutes’ silence there came a distant response. Over the next 30 minutes or so we played audio ping-pong with the neighbourhood lion, whose roars became increasingly louder until they made my heart thump, skin prickle and palms sweat.

'The time is long overdue for a radical reappraisal of anisogamy’s clichéd sex roles – if only our species is ready to accept them'

‘Excess copulations may not actually cost a female much . . . but they do her no positive good. A male on the other hand can never get enough copulations with as many different females as possible: the word excess has no meaning for a male,’ explained my tutor, Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene.

This biological law always made my head (and heart) hurt. How could one sex be promiscuous and the other chaste – after all, who were the males having sex with if the females were all so demure? It didn’t make sense to me. And if a female’s sexual behaviour is prescribed by her gametes, then how can we explain the unrestrained sexuality of the lioness?

Well, it turns out the female lion is by no means the only strumpet in the animal kingdom. The time is long overdue for a radical reappraisal of anisogamy’s clichéd sex roles – if only our species is ready to accept them.
 

This is an extract from Lucy Cooke’s Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal. To continue reading about the subversive ‘strumpets’ of the animal kingdom, flip to the book’s Chapter 3: The Monogamy Myth.

Image: Anna Kiosse

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