A comment piece in the latest edition of the journal Nature warns scientists of the pitfalls of allowing their work on sexual behaviour among animals to be ‘sensationalised’ in the media, with a particular focus on ‘gay’ animals.

Andrew Barron and Mark Brown penned the primer for researchers to help them avoid potential misunderstanding of their studies about animals’ sex lives.

They make particular reference to headlines including ‘She-male Garter Snakes: Some Like It Hot’, ‘Bug sexual warfare drives gender bender’ and ‘Brokeback Mutton’.

The academics read 48 articles about 11 studies and conclude in their opinion piece that the “vast majority” of cases where the media reported on same-sex sexual contact between animals described them as gay, lesbian or transgender.

They warn: “This is not innocuous — these are terms that refer to human sexuality, which encompasses lifestyle choices, partner preferences and culture, among other factors.”

Some media reports suggested that scientists were able to turn the animals of certain species gay, though the studies in question made no such claim.

The pair warn that carefully wording the paper and its title are not enough if scientists are to ensure their findings on sexual activity are not misinterpreted.

They note the case of the study ‘Female-limited polymorphism in the copulatory organ of a traumatically inseminating insect’, which finally appeared in the media under the more exotic headline ‘Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises’.

If academics are unsure about headlines like ‘The love that daren’t squawk its name: when animals come out of the closet’, Barron and Brown recommend they avoid drawing “a link between their research findings and human behaviour” when providing the media with comment.

While they encourage scientists to promote public interest in their work, “they must also try to ensure responsible reporting of their findings through clear, carefully phrased messages to journalists”.

Individual studies, they conclude, can only tell readers about the sexual behaviour of the species in question, and “simplistic extrapolation, by scientists or by the media, to ‘explanations for’ human heterosexual, gay, lesbian or transgender behaviour can only stand in the way of these worthy and exciting goals.”

Andrew B. Barron is a senior lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney and Mark J. F. Brown a Reader in evolutionary ecology and conservation at the School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London. The full article can be read in this month’s edition of Nature.