By Bianca M. Caraza, Global Animal
(ANIMAL KINGDOM) Since before President John F. Kennedy and blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe, politics has been steamy with sexual scandals. Today one can’t turn on the news without hearing of celebrity cheaters.
Over the years, we’ve witnessed the public shame of secrets spilling out — anti-gay rights Senator Larry Craig inventively asking out another man in a restroom stall, Senator John Edwards getting extra on the side, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey coming out to an extramarital affair. And who can forget the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Last month, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger and his affair and resulting lovechild with his housekeeper. This week it’s Anthony Weiner and his racy online rendezvous.
These men have faced serious public scorn for their promiscuity, but can they help their unfaithful ways? Is there a genetic factor lacing the scandals? Should married men stay unquestionably faithful, or are we as human beings simply straining our genes when it comes to practicing monogamy? Perhaps a study of animal mating patterns can answer that question for good.
To start, there are three types of monogamy found in animals that must be defined. First is sexual monogamy, which translates to an animal having only one mate at a time. Social monogamy differs in that two animals pair to mate and raise offspring. Usually, however, socially monogamous animals conduct affairs outside of the family, much like a politician. Third is genetic monogamy, which simply means that all of a female’s offspring are sired by the same partner.
While only 3—5% of mammals are monogamous, about 90% of birds are. Wolves, for example, are considered serially monogamous. This means that a pair lasts until death or one mate is incapable of breeding. The chances of finding a cheating wolf are unlikely, however, not unique.
One of the main reasons for monogamy in nature is the necessity of two parents protecting vulnerable offspring for an extended period of time. While most mammals grow to adulthood in a span of a few short months, humans might be more likely to practice monogamy simply because of our nearly two decade’s long childhoods.
Even more so than humans, beavers depend on monogamy for the tight-knit families which allow them to upkeep their dams. This is much like the Malagasy jumping rat of Madagascar, which are known to be extremely protective of their young and must maintain an underground burrow with the one or two offspring they produce annually.
The prairie vole is another admirably monogamous animal. Taking relationships to an extreme, even for most humans, the male prairie vole pairs permanently with
the female to which he’s lost his virginity. The male prairie vole will even attack other females who come too close. The black vulture is also fiercely monogamous due to an eight month egg incubation period that requires the efforts of both parents. Males will physically attack any other vultures seen straying from their pairings, like a Victorian community enforcing upstanding moral behavior.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Americans is so scandalized by cheating politicians is that our national bird, the bald eagle, is also serially monogamous. While it’s only till death do us part for the magnificent white birds, they do not, in fact, cheat. This behavior is unlike that of swans, despite the romantic misconception, who actually stay with the same mate for long periods of time — sometimes life — but have been known to enjoy the company of other swans while still not breaking their original pairing bond.
The idea of two animals, whether human, bird, or even rat, staying together for life seems undeniably romantic, but is it practical? Most mammals practice promiscuity in mating simply to guarantee a solid number of offspring from the best available genetic source. This means stronger, better offspring in greater numbers.
Monogamy is not without its consequences. The Malagasy jumping rat, bald eagle, and some species of wolf have all been or are endangered or threatened species. Other animals, such as the emperor penguin, who practice serial monogamy over the course of a single mating season (about one year), are flourishing.
Why is it that certain animals continue to practice monogamy, even when it means reproducing less, and others, like apes, go so far as to institute polygamy in hopes of broadening the species? More importantly, are humans meant to be monogamous? Should our political representatives suffer for being bad father beavers, or are they doing right by their genetic code by acting like swans? Is it advantageous for us to pick and stick to one mate or should we, like chimpanzees and former governors, run rampant and spread our genetic material to the furthest corners of the earth?