Historic study on sexually depraved penguins found

By AAP with AG staff 12 June 2012
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A historic Antarctica study on sexual depravity in Adélie penguins has been unearthed and published.

HE RISKED FREEZING or starving to death on a doomed expedition to the South Pole 100 years ago – but for George Murray Levick, the real horror lay in the twisted sexual mores of the Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae).

London’s Natural History Museum has unearthed a landmark study by Levick, a scientist with the ill-fated 1910-13 Scott Antarctic Expedition, detailing the birds’ sexual shenanigans, the Guardian newspaper reported on Saturday.

Homosexual acts, sexual abuse of chicks and even attempts by male penguins to mate with dead females are recorded in Levick’s paper “Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin”, which had been lost for decades.

Adélie penguins at Cape Royds, Ross Island, in the Ross Dependency of Antarctica, during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic, 13th February 1911.
A large tabular iceberg floats in the sea behind them. (Photo by Herbert Ponting/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge/Getty Images)

Horrified by penguins’ sex habits

Edwardian Englishman Levick was so horrified by his own findings that he initially recorded them in Greek to make them inaccessible to the average reader.

Male penguins gathered in “hooligan bands of half a dozen or more and hang about the outskirts of the knolls, whose inhabitants they annoy by their constant acts of depravity,” he later wrote in the paper in English.

To this day, Levick is the only scientist to have studied an entire breeding cycle at Cape Adare after he spent the Antarctic summer of 1911-12 there, the Guardian said.

launch gallery

Captain Robert Scott and four others perished after reaching the South Pole on 17 January, 1912 – only to find Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it more than a month earlier.

But Levick survived, despite having been forced, with five others, to spend an entire Antarctic winter in an ice cave with few supplies after the expedition ship, Terra Nova, was blocked by ice on its way to rescue them.

Shocking penguin behaviour censored

Back in Britain, he published a paper called “Natural History of the Adélie Penguin”, but his findings about the species’ astonishing sexual behaviour were considered so shocking that they were omitted.

This material was used for a short separate study, “Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin”, that was privately passed around a few experts.

The ground-breaking paper, which came about 50 years ahead of the next study on the subject, had been lost until the recent discovery of a copy by Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum in London.

Russell had the paper published in the journal Polar Record along with an analysis of Levick’s work.

Russell told the Guardian’s sister Sunday newspaper, The Observer, that the penguins’ sexual inexperience is to blame for the antics that so disgusted Levick.

“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,” he explained. “Hence the seeming depravity of their behaviour.”