Animals That Can Change Gender

Coral_Hawkfish

Indeed, the intricate tapestry of the animal kingdom is woven with astonishing adaptations, some of which involve the phenomenon of gender change. From the depths of the oceans to the heights of the forests, nature showcases a remarkable array of strategies that species have developed to ensure their survival and reproductive success.

Sequential hermaphroditism is a captivating phenomenon that underscores the adaptability of certain creatures. Take the wrasses, for instance, a group of fish known for their gender-changing abilities. In these underwater realms, some wrasses begin their lives as females and then, in response to various environmental cues, transform into males. Social hierarchy, the absence of dominant males, or even the need to defend territories can cause this transition. Such flexibility in gender roles serves to maintain the balance of populations and the preservation of the species.

Enter bilateral gynandromorphism, a fascinating occurrence where an animal displays both male and female physical traits. This unique blend of genders can arise due to genetic mutations during early development, resulting in mosaic individuals with characteristics of both sexes. Such occurrences, although rare, offer a window into the intricate genetic dance that shapes the diversity of life.

The sea slug, captivating with its vibrant colors and intricate forms, adds another layer of wonder to this tale. Some species of sea slugs have the astonishing ability to change their gender in response to social interactions. When two male sea slugs meet, one of them transforms into a female, ensuring a balance of reproductive opportunities within the group.

As we delve deeper into the animal kingdom, the realm of amphibians reveals a story of adaptation and resilience. Frogs, known for their diverse array of reproductive strategies, are gradually using gender reversal as a tool to combat harmful mutations. This intriguing mechanism is akin to a self-correcting mechanism that purges detrimental genetic variations from the gene pool, contributing to the overall health of the species.

These stories of gender-changing animals offer a glimpse into the extraordinary ways that creatures have evolved to navigate the complex web of life. Nature’s creativity knows no bounds, and the animals that inhabit our world are living testaments to the ingenuity of survival and the myriad ways in which life adapts to the challenges it faces. Just as John Muir’s words remind us, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

Clownfish

Had “Finding Nemo” taken a more realistic approach, its storyline might have unfolded in a completely divergent manner. As per findings published in Scientific Reports, clownfish, exhibiting sequential hermaphroditism, possess the ability to alter their genders at certain junctures of their lives. This distinctive characteristic sets clownfish apart, as they do not undergo a fixed gender switch during a specific life stage. Instead, this behavior manifests among individuals when the collective group is in the midst of a social metamorphosis.

According to insights provided by the Beckman Institute, a typical clownfish family comprises a dominant female (matriarch), a marginally smaller male, and a cluster of smaller, undifferentiated fish. Over the span of a few months, the male undergoes a transformation into a female counterpart and, should the dominant female depart from the group, attains a larger size. Consequently, the undifferentiated smaller fish assume male roles and engage in mating with the newly emerged female. Researchers posit that the communication and initiation of these changes in clownfish behavior are orchestrated through a combination of visual cues, auditory signals, olfactory cues, and hormonal adjustments. This scenario stands as a truly remarkable illustration of how social interactions can exert enduring impacts on the conduct, individual traits, and physical structure of this particular species.

Frogs

As outlined in a PeerJ publication, the phenomenon of gender transformation is not widely prevalent among frogs, yet its emergence is becoming more conspicuous, particularly among green tree frogs. The influence of pollution, specifically the presence of herbicides and synthetic estrogens, has been established as a catalyst for gender conversion in frogs. Curiously, this transformation seems to affect solely male frogs, without any observed instances of gender reversal.

However, recent investigations have revealed that frogs are also undergoing gender shifts within their natural habitats. This narrative extends beyond the scope of pollution, signifying the remarkable capacity of frogs to adjust their sexual destinies according to localized conditions. Researchers, in their scrutiny of slightly less than 5% of frogs undergoing gender changes, meticulously examined green frogs residing in 18 distinct ponds. The enigma surrounding the root cause behind a notably higher prevalence (surpassing 10%) of gender-altering frogs within a singular pond, in contrast to the other 17 ponds, remains veiled in uncertainty.

The phenomenon of gender alteration transpiring solely during the initial life stages of frogs carries the potential to augment genetic diversity while simultaneously eradicating undesirable mutations. Irrespective of the rationales and repercussions underpinning frogs’ gender metamorphosis, there remains an extensive realm of knowledge to be unearthed concerning these captivating amphibious creatures.

Slugs

Slugs exhibit a remarkable capacity to opt for specific roles during mating rather than undergo bodily transformations. According to insights from The Conversation, these creatures are simultaneous hermaphrodites, boasting both male and female reproductive organs, affording them the ability to self-fertilize. Nevertheless, the primary rationale driving their pursuit of a mate is rooted in the preservation of genetic diversity and the avoidance of issues associated with inbreeding.

Subsequently, slugs possess the autonomy to elect whether to partake in reproduction as males or females. Furthermore, they possess the capability to engage in both modes, encompassing the fertilization of another slug and the laying of eggs. Evidently, this approach aligns with their preferences. In addition, certain slugs have been noted to retain sperm from previous mating encounters, strategically choosing the opportune moment to fertilize their eggs.

A BBC documentary presented by David Attenborough underscores the concept of mutual agreement even within the realm of slug sexual interactions. As a slug becomes receptive to mating, it leaves behind a distinct trail of mucous imbued with a discernible taste. Should another nearby slug seek to engage in mating, it simply needs to trail the mucous path to connect with its partner. Truly captivating, isn’t it?

Bearded Dragons

Bearded Dragons from Australia,also known as Pogona,sunbathing.
Bearded Dragons from Australia. Image: reptileguide.

According to Forbes, an individual mammal’s sex depends on its sex chromosomes, with XX denoting females and XY denoting males. Notably, unlike mammals, reptilian embryos typically have their sex determined by the surrounding temperature. However, within the realm of reptiles, the bearded dragons present a distinctive case. Under standard temperatures, these creatures undergo growth based on the mechanism of chromosomal determination. Yet a captivating phenomenon unfolds when it comes to bearded dragons carrying male chromosomes.

Namely, when temperatures soar well beyond 32 degrees Celsius, certain male-chromosomed bearded dragons undergo a transformation, assuming a female identity. This transformation becomes universally applicable to all genetically male dragons as temperatures surpass the threshold of 36 degrees Celsius.

According to ABC Science, the mystery grows as it becomes clear that female dragons with male chromosomes (ZZ) exhibit the remarkable ability to produce twice as many eggs as their non-sex-changing (ZW) counterparts. Moreover, offspring originating from both ZZ female and ZZ male pairings exhibit robust health. The sole disparity among bearded dragons manifests in the heightened susceptibility of their offspring to gender alteration under elevated temperature conditions.

This captivating phenomenon, while riveting in its own right, raises a pertinent query in light of the established reality of global warming: At what juncture might the entire bearded dragon population transition to a predominantly female composition?

Northern Cardinal

In contrast to reptiles or fish, avian species demonstrate a notably reduced occurrence of gender switching. Nonetheless, an article featured in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology reveals a distinctive phenomenon within certain Northern Cardinals: bilateral gynandromorphism. These avian beings emerge with an equilibrium between female and male feather pigmentation, with the right side showcasing male hues and the left side adorned in female shades (reddish-brownish gray juxtaposed with bright red). The study, encompassing a span of 15 months, was carried out within Northern Cardinal flocks in northwestern Illinois, spanning from December 2008 to March 2010. The core objective was to ascertain whether gynandromorphic cardinals exhibit distinct behavioral patterns within their collectives, as well as any variances in male or female conduct.

Remarkably, unlike their cardinal counterparts engaged in mating endeavors, gynandromorphic cardinals were never witnessed with a mate or heard vocalizing. Nevertheless, they appeared to be accepted within cardinal society, evading any manifestations of aggression from their peers. The realm of bilateral gynandromorphism remains an enigma that beckons further exploration. However, findings from a study by Brian D. Peer and Robert W. Motz (which makes reference to an unrelated study from 2010) suggest that birds with bilateral gynandromorphism might be androgen chimeras. This intriguing condition potentially elucidates the distinctive Cardinals’ challenges in achieving mating success or vocalization.

Ribbon Eels

Leaf-nosed moray eels, a rarity to human observers, lead a predominantly concealed existence within crevices on the seafloor of reef waters. Yet, when they venture forth, as eloquently depicted in a Dodo video, their emergence unveils a spectacle of resplendent hues and intricate surface motifs. However, the distinctive attributes of leaf-nosed moray eels transcend their captivating aesthetic. These aquatic denizens are protandrous hermaphrodites, akin to clownfish, enabling them to undergo gender metamorphosis at any juncture in their lifecycle.

Diverging from clownfish, every leaf-nosed moray eel embarks on this transformative journey. All members of this species commence existence as males, with juvenile males draped entirely in a deep ebony hue, gradually transitioning as their dorsal fin adopts a radiant yellow shade. As maturation sets in, they transform into a vivid blend of yellow and blue, sustaining this vibrant phase for the majority of their lives. Concurrently, with the progression of time, these male individuals not only expand in size but also initiate the development of female reproductive organs. A crucial turning point eventually occurs, heralding the entry into the female phase with a striking golden complexion. This transition typically unfolds around the eel’s twentieth year, culminating in a brief yet impactful existence as a female, spanning approximately a month. Within this fleeting period, the female endeavors to lay eggs, thus perpetuating the lineage by bestowing the underwater realm with a fresh cohort of diminutive, black ribbon eels.

Green Sea Turtle

We now transition to a more somber aspect of this discourse. The pivotal determinant of gender among green sea turtles lies in the incubation temperature of their eggs; elevated temperatures lead to the development of female embryos. Regrettably, the Pacific Ocean, a region confronted with escalating warmth, and the Australian coastline, both of which house these turtles, represent only a fraction of the locales grappling with climate change’s profound impact. An alarming revelation accentuates this predicament: a staggering 99% of Australian green sea turtles now manifest as females. Camryn Allen, a dedicated turtle biologist, underscored the gravity of this scenario, expressing, “We’re encountering a scenario where we find a handful of males amid an overwhelming multitude of females. It’s an exceptional circumstance—one that has left us astounded.”

This gender disparity can be attributed to temperature’s role in shaping the sexes of an array of reptilian species, encompassing iguanas, crocodiles, and a diverse array of turtle species. Should the trajectory of rising temperatures persist, the perilous outcome could entail the complete feminization of these species, potentially driving them to the brink of extinction. However, prospective solutions, not devoid of their complexities, offer a glimmer of hope. Among these, the implementation of shading mechanisms and the creation of simulated rainfall in turtle-nesting locales stand out. These endeavors, operating in tandem with the broader battle against climate change, hold potential to mitigate this pressing concern. A secondary approach, underscored by scientist Colin Limpus, focuses on fostering optimal nesting conditions for turtles. This strategy involves the cooling of sand temperatures, thereby orchestrating a shift in the gender ratio towards a more balanced representation of males.

Hawkfish (Cirrhitidae)

Coral Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus), Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
Coral Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus), Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Image: Wikimedia.

A remarkable instance of gender transition unfolds within the realm of Hawkfish, a rare creature capable of traversing between sexes. While some fish can solely navigate the trajectory from female to male upon reaching sexual maturity or encountering potential mates, distinct mechanisms govern the Hawkfish’s gender metamorphosis. Unlike certain species, like Paralichthys, where shifts are incited by temperature fluctuations, the Hawkfish’s gender transitions are profoundly influenced by social dynamics.

The Hawkfish exists within a social framework of harems, comprising several females and a dominant male. On occasion, the male attains an excessive number of females available for mating. This pivotal juncture triggers a noteworthy response: one of the larger females within the assembly undergoes a gender shift. Intriguingly, should the harem experience a reduction in female numbers or should the dominant male face a challenge to its status, the newly transformed male is capable of reverting to a female state. Tatsuru Kadota, a distinguished scientist, elucidated the significance of this behavior for the species, highlighting, “The capacity for bidirectional sex change enhances an individual’s reproductive value.

The ability of the hawkfish to change its gender under the influence of complex social dynamics is evidence of the numerous adaptive strategies used by life forms to ensure their success in reproduction and continued existence.

Humphead Wrasse (Napoleon fish)

The realm of gender transformation extends beyond diminutive fish; indeed, it encompasses magnificent creatures such as the Humphead Wrasse, recognized by various monikers, including Māori wrasse, Napoleon wrasse, and Napoleon fish, often dubbed the “elephants of the coral reefs.” This prodigious species exhibits a distinctive facet of gender transition. Operating as protogynous hermaphrodites, all humphead wrasses are initially female at birth, yet a subset possesses the remarkable capacity to transition into males upon reaching maturity, an eventuality that typically transpires between 5 and 7 years of age.

This transformative process typically unfolds within a group of Napoleon fish when a dominant female assumes a leadership role and gradually embarks on the journey of transitioning into a male. In an awe-inspiring display, the video captures the metamorphosis of a female humphead wrasse, which undergoes a striking alteration from a verdant hue to a vivid blue while concurrently enlarging the modest bump atop its forehead, emblematic of its shift from the female to the male realm.

Butterflies

Male Ornithoptera euphorion (Birdwing butterfly).
Male Ornithoptera euphorion (Birdwing butterfly).

Butterflies can occasionally show bilateral gynandromorphism, such as in cardinal birds. However, the intricate genetic underpinnings behind this occurrence remain shrouded in mystery. In female butterflies, a dual-nucleus egg cell bearing a combination of Z and W chromosomes is laid, a mechanism reminiscent of the potential origins of gynandromorphism in avian species. Within the same progeny, each egg cell, fertilized by a sperm carrying a Z chromosome, ushers forth a dual outcome: certain cells adopt the ZZ configuration, while others embrace the ZW composition. Within the butterfly’s realm, a unique process unfolds as two sperm infiltrate the same egg, with one integrating into the nucleus and the other finding its place within the cellular fluid.

In the realm of butterflies, akin to certain avian species, gynandromorphism doesn’t invariably adopt a bilateral configuration. This signifies that the allocation of male and female cells doesn’t always adhere to a symmetrical distribution across the left and right hemispheres. Such individuals earn the designation of mosaic gynandromorphs, and the intricate patterns that grace their forms often evoke a sense of awe. Approximately one in 1,000 butterflies will showcase a manifestation of gynandromorphism—a rarity that stands as a testament to its larger-than-life essence.

In the present day, a cadre of medical practitioners and scientists has directed their focus toward the study of gynandromorphic butterflies. They embark on these endeavors to gain insights into ailments linked to human sex chromosomes, with a particular emphasis on understanding how certain afflictions may disproportionately affect one gender over the other. This pursuit serves as an illuminating path where the mesmerizing world of butterflies intersects with the complex realm of human health.

Crepidula fornicata

Slipper limpets, Crepidula fornicata, gathered around the Weymouth area in Dorset England UK while foraging for shellfish.
Slipper limpets Crepidula fornicata).

If there were an award for the most bizarre gender reassignment techniques, slipper limpets would probably be the most deserving. These enigmatic creatures engage in a peculiar gender-changing process when two male slipper limpets make contact. Functioning as sequential hermaphrodites, they all commence existence as males, subsequently undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis into females shortly after attaining sexual maturity. Consequently, slipper limpets partake in dual mating episodes, initially as males and subsequently as females.

In the intriguing realm of slipper limpets, a study undertaken by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in 2015 (corroborated by preceding research) illuminated a fascinating facet: gender change is more likely to be instigated by tactile interactions, among other variables, including chemical cues. Moreover, in instances where two male limpets are confined in proximity, the larger among them assumes the role of birthing females first. While slipper limpets may not be renowned for their mobility, the revelations from this study underscore a realm of intricate interactions far beyond our preconceived notions. As co-author of the study, Rachel Collin, aptly encapsulates, the revelations gleaned from delving into the natural world often unfold in astonishingly nuanced ways.

Sea Bass

While often gracing the menus of restaurants, sea bass harbor a concealed complexity within their lifestyles. Among them, the black sea bass stands as an exemplar of enigma, existing as protogynous hermaphrodites. This signifies their initiation as females and their potential transformation into males between the ages of 2 and 5. Despite the absence of a unanimous consensus among experts regarding a singular hypothesis to elucidate gender shifts in sea bass, a plausible rationale emerges: the preservation of population equilibrium to safeguard the species’ sustenance and expansion.

Although it might appear fantastical, this mechanism aligns seamlessly with an evolutionary perspective, ingeniously preserving population equilibrium. In a natural context, the apprehension over fishing pressures eliminating substantial males and tilting the sex ratio becomes somewhat alleviated. A study published in Science Daily postulates that female sea bass can assume male identities in the absence of male counterparts nearby. However, the study’s author posits that gender shifts during early stages are more likely influenced by a stable temperature.

The quest for more precise forecasts of animal stocks catering to the fishing industry has spurred the investigation of sea bass gender dynamics. Misidentifications of sea bass as females spanning decades have engendered faulty population estimates, culminating in measures such as closed fishing seasons or dwindling sea bass populations. This study marks a pivotal stride toward assessing and managing this species by accurately acknowledging the intricate lifecycle of sea bass, thereby rectifying historical oversights.

Thalassoma bifasciatum

Among the ranks of extraordinary gender-changing phenomena, the bluehead wrasse emerges as a compelling contender. Much like the clownfish and the humphead wrasse (also known as Napoleon wrasse), Thalassoma bifasciatum holds its place as a coral reef inhabitant. However, what distinguishes this species is its swift gender-changing prowess, accomplished within a mere span of ten days. Operating within organized harems, featuring one male alongside multiple females, Thalassoma bifasciatum boasts a distinctive modus operandi. The most substantial female undergoes a transformation into a male and ascends to the role of leader in the absence of the original male.

Yet, this species unveils yet another layer of gender-changing intrigue. Following a seamless transition, Thalassoma bifasciatum engages in an “alternative male strategy,” commencing their reproductive journey as females before embarking on the transition to the male phase. A 2013 study conducted at Oxford yielded intriguing revelations, showcasing that females transmuting into males swiftly embrace male-specific behaviors such as courtship and aggression shortly post-transition. Nature, in its multifaceted splendor, addresses the need for adaptability through an array of mechanisms, traversing realms of both awe and complexity. This natural order defies the confines of a uniform norm, and humans, too, should heed the wisdom of such diversity, relinquishing the constraints of an illusory concept of universal normalcy.