A century after they were first written, an early Antarctic explorer’s notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin have been published.
Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956) spent a winter watching the penguins at Cape Adare, but what he saw was considered so shocking to Edwardian sensibilities that the section on sex was left out of his published report. He also wrote in Greek, to further hide his observations.
Levick saw males having sex with other males, males having sex with dead females, including several that had died the previous year. He also saw them gang up and ‘rape’ females and chicks and he saw male gangs kill chicks.
This led Levick to describe the activity anthropomorphically; the males were “hooligans,” forming “hooligan bands” and practiced “astonishing depravity.” “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,” he wrote.
The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.
Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the London’s Natural History Museum, who unearthed the study, tells the Guardian that we now understand what’s going on:
Adélies gather at their colonies in October to start to breed. They have only a few weeks to do that and young adults simply have no experience of how to behave.
Many respond to inappropriate cues. Hence the seeming depravity of their behaviour. For example, a dead penguin, lying with its eyes half-open, is very similar in appearance to a compliant female. The result is the so-called necrophilia that Levick witnessed and which so disgusted him.
Russell also notes that Levick undoubtedly saw the penguins as we continue to do today as human-like. This is why the movie “March of the Penguins” was able to be deployed by conservatives as an argument for monogamy and for so-called “intelligent design.”
“Levick’s notes were decades ahead of their time and possibly the first ever attempt to reveal the more challenging aspects of bird behavioral strategies to the academic world,” says Russell, adding that:
Over the course of the last 50 years there has gradually been more freedom and willingness to objectively interpret sexual behaviors in animals.
Says penguin researcher David Ainley:
Penguin research has come a long way since Levick’s day. These days we’re not so much concerned with hooligans and the follies of young penguins, but rather the fact that only about 15% of the breeders consistently raise young.
Levick’s notebook is at the center of a new exhibition on the 1910-13 Scott Antarctic Expedition running at the Natural History Museum until September.
They are published in the journal “Polar Record,” though as it is an academic journal, it will cost you to read them.
Here’s a video from the Natural History Museum about Scott’s Antarctic Expedition:
Picture by ksuyin