We sat down with Emilee Martell to learn more about queer native species of Wisconsin.

Have you heard of a children’s book called And Tango Makes Three? It’s the true story of a same-sex penguin couple at Central Park Zoo that successfully hatched a chick together. I was ten when it came out in 2005, and it was the first time I heard anything about queerness in the natural world. Later, I learned – usually via Buzzfeed articles – about lesbian albatrosses, lionesses that grew manes, and clownfish that changed their sex. After many years of hearing queerness called “unnatural,” such stories were uplifting and validating. But these exotic examples made me wonder: didn’t Wisconsin have any queer species too?

Fortunately, all it took was a little looking around to realize that the answer is – yes! Nature is full of wonderful diversity in sex, gender, families, and relationships, and our native Midwestern species are no exception.

A close-up of a bloodroot wildflower.

A close-up of bloodroot, a bisexual wildflower. Photo by Joshua Mayer

Exploring queerness in nature

First off, let’s have a little fun with scientific terminology. Did you know that the term for a flower that contains both male and female parts is “bisexual”? Or, that these are also called “perfect” flowers? Being bi myself, I was delighted when I learned this fact. I was even more delighted when I learned that my favorite spring ephemeral wildflower, bloodroot, is an example of a perfect, bisexual flower.

Similarly, the term “asexual” in biology refers to an organism’s ability to reproduce without a partner. Many plants are capable of asexual reproduction, including another lovely spring ephemeral, the trout lily. Coincidentally, its white petals sometimes have a purple blush, and its leaves are patterned with grayish dapples. This is a pretty good match for the asexual (ace) flag!

A close-up of a trout lily in the grass. Asexual pride flag in the sky.

A close-up of a trout lily in the grass, which exhibits asexual reproduction and an asexual pride flag. Trout lily photo by Warren Lynn

Jack-in-the-pulpit is a third spring ephemeral with queer flair. A perennial species, all Jack-in-the-pulpits begin their lives as pollen-producing males. This takes less energy for the young, small plant, but gives them a low chance of reproducing. They have to hope that their main pollinators, fungus gnats, will successfully transfer their genetic material to the right partner. But, when the plant grows larger and stronger, it becomes a berry-producing female, sometimes called a Jill-in-the-pulpit. This gives it a much higher chance of passing its own genes along. So, for Jack/Jill-in-the-pulpits, being transgender is a winning evolutionary strategy!

A close-up of a jack-in-the-pulpit in the grass.

A close-up of a jack-in-the-pulpit, which can change from male to female. Photo by Dane County Lands & Water Resources Department

Diverse Relationships in Nature: From Same-Sex Waterfowl to Polyamorous Eagles

For numerous bird species, queerness also provides benefits. Swans and geese, for instance, mate for life and have high numbers of same-sex breeding pairs. Female couples are able to pick out the fittest males to mate with every year, and raise double broods of eggs together. Male couples take advantage of their combined strength to claim the best territory, and will use a surrogate female to lay eggs in their nest! Just like the penguins in And Tango Makes Three, same-sex waterfowl couples make loving, attentive, and extremely successful parents.

And, sometimes, a couple just isn’t enough! Check out this extraordinary story about a trio of polyamorous eagles whose dramatic relationship was caught on a nest camera in the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge. As many have noted, this is just one nest among thousands, very few of which are regularly monitored by humans. Who knows what other fascinating families are out there among our native species?

Two trumpeter swans in the water.

Two trumpeter swans in the water. Swans and geese, which mate for life, have high numbers of same-sex pairs. Photo by John Hocker

The more we look, the more we see. Every year, I learn about more unique and unexpected traits in familiar plants and animals. White-throated sparrows and bluegill sunfish have each essentially evolved four genders, in very different ways. Whitetail deer can be intersex, and every so often a hunter or nature observer will find a “doe with antlers.” And I am still trying to get a handle on how fungi do gender!

If you want to learn more about queer animals, I highly recommend Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. This book compiles a staggering amount of scientific research and observations into fascinating case studies. And, don’t forget to check out the queer humans of Wisconsin, too. R. Richard Wagner’s We’ve Been Here All Along and Coming Out, Moving Forward both document LGBTQ+ history in our state.

Embracing the Queerness of Wisconsin’s Oak Trees

Before I wrap up, I want to propose one species as the poster child for queerness in Wisconsin’s natural world: the oak! From sandy hills to mucky swamps and everything in between, oaks are a keystone in Midwestern ecosystems. Hundreds if not thousands of species of insects, birds, and mammals rely on them for food and shelter. Being a pillar of a diverse community puts me in mind of an LGBTQ+ elder already, but that’s not nearly all with oaks! Oaks have separate male and female flowers on one tree. The scientific term is “monoecious,” but we humans might describe that as intersex or bigender! They are wind-pollinated but will occasionally self-pollinate, putting them on the asexual spectrum. They even go beyond the bounds of their own kind – oaks will happily hybridize with other oak species! Could we call that pansexuality? Regardless, oaks are remarkably important, and remarkably queer.

A standing oak tree in a field.

An oak tree, which has both male and female flowers, in a field. Photo by Dane County Lands & Water Resources

There’s much more out there to explore and learn about in regards to queer nature, and I’m so glad we all get the chance. When And Tango Makes Three was published in 2005, it caused quite an uproar. In fact, it was the most frequently challenged book in America for four years running. Unfortunately, we continue to face painful attacks against the LGBTQ+ community, especially trans and nonbinary folks. But, it’s still a remarkable achievement that we’ve gotten to a place where articles, books, and blogs about queer nature are all over the place, and thousands of folks are reading them, enjoying them, and standing up for people and nature alike.

Thanks for being one of those folks today. See you out in our wonderfully queer natural world!

Guest blogger

Guest blogger

Emilee Martell (she/they)

Communications Specialist, Driftless Area Land Conservancy

Emilee Martell is a land conservationist, writer, and aspiring farmer based in the beautiful St. Croix River valley of northwest Wisconsin.