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Male Termites Open to Same-Sex Relationships in Absence of Females

These termites want to crush their enemies and hear the lamentations of their women.

by Becky Ferreira
Aug 22 2016, 9:00am

Two male termites sharing a nest. Image: Nobuaki Mizumoto

Same-sex relationships are common in nature, and run the gamut from monogamous lesbian penguins to the riotous pansexual bonobo orgies. As in humans, the underlying reasons that some species form these intimate partnerships is complex and varies widely case-by-case.

Case in point: New research published in the journal Animal Behavior proposes that male Japanese termites pair up with their rivals when they are unable to procure a female. These male-male couples build nests together and share resources, just like a male-female termite partnerships, but one shouldn't be fooled by this heartwarming tableau.

Unlike evolution's panoply of affectionate same-sex partnerships, coupled termite males are all about heartbreak and bloodshed. According to lead author Nobuaki Mizumoto, an insect ecologist based at Kyoto University, the ultimate strategy for the males seems to be methodically devastating any male-female termite couples unlucky enough to be in their way.

"Male termites aren't able to survive on their own, but those that make nests with another male survived for much longer," said Mizumoto in a statement. "This was especially beneficial in situations when searching for females raises the risk of being preyed upon. It's clear that male-male pairing is a strategy for survival."

By working together, the same-sex units survive longer, upping the odds that they'd find a male-female nest. At that point, they team up on that male, kill him, and mate with the female. Or, as IFLScience put it, "Gay Termites Kill Straight Males To Steal Their Wives."

"Pairing with another male isn't the best option, but it gives mateless termites a chance to survive until they find a female, if that happens at all," said Mizutani. "To understand this behavior further, it will be important to consider the effects of other factors such as predators."

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