12 June 2012

Scoop of the (last) century - penguins' shocking sex habits revealed!

ANTARCTICA - Necrophilia, sexual coercion, chick abuse, sex for pleasure and homosexual behaviour: penguins' sex lives were too much for Dr George Levick, who wrote a four-page pamphlet 'The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguins' in 1915 but decided not to publish it with other research because it was too explicit.

The pamphlet was recently rediscovered by Douglas Russell, bird curator at the Natural History Museum at Tring, who said, "Levick's notes were decades ahead of their time."

Levick, a surgeon and the medical officer on Captain Scott's famous 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition, Terra Nova, studied the colony at Cape Adare, which has the largest Adélie penguin colony in the world.

Clearly shocked by the behaviour of the penguins hanging out on the fringes of the colony (described as "hooligans"), Levick even wrote in Greek to disguise the information. He noted, "There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins ... 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."

The Edwardian scientist's notes have been republished and reinterpreted by Russell, Prof William Sladen of John Hopkins Medical Institutions and penguin researcher David Ainley in the journal Polar Record.

Whereas Levick interpreted the penguins' behaviour in human moral terms, there is now greater understanding of animal behaviour.

"Over the course of the last 50 years there has gradually been more freedom and willingness to objectively interpret sexual behaviours in animals," said Russell.

For example, necrophilia is not seen as a penguin being sexually aroused by a dead bird, but being chemically wired to respond to a seemingly compliant female.

Levick's original unbound pamphlet is kept at the Natural History Museum at Tring in the ornithological collections. His notes and Adélie penguin specimens he collected from Cape Adare are on display in the Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition at the Museum in London. 

Polar Record citation
Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin. Douglas G.D. Russell, William J.L. Sladen and David G. Ainley, Polar Record, January 2012.

Penguin sex habits rediscovered at Museum, 9 June 2012, Natural History Museum

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