The “depraved” sex acts of “hooligan” penguins horrified polar explorer, journals reveal

By Australian Geographic 28 April 2020
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
The journals are the first full account of the world’s largest Adélie penguin colony.

AN ANTARCTIC EXPLORER’S century-old notebook, detailing the “depraved” behaviours of “hooligan” Adélie penguins have been acquired by the Natural History Museum in London. 

The author of the notebook George Murray Levick was a surgeon and zoologist, as well as a photographer, on the ill-fated British-Antarctic Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), led by Robert Falcon Scott.

Fortunately, Levick was among those of the expedition chosen to set up camp at Cape Adare, rather than being selected for the trek to the South Pole, which resulted in the deaths of Falcon-Scott and his four companions.

There, Levick was able to record the behaviours of the Ridley Beach colony of Adélie penguins, known to be the largest colony in the world even today, consisting of 335,000 penguins. 

Levick was horrified by his observations. He witnessed male Adélie penguins mating with dead females, homosexual behaviour, mating with young chicks and non-procreative sex. 

Levick went as far recording his observations in Greek alphabet code to spare his companions from ever reading them. Upon his return to London in 1913, his fellow zoologists even urged him not to include these findings in his book on Antarctic penguins. 

A photograph of as passage from the notebook written in Greek alphabet code. (Supplied)

Douglas Russell, the senior curator of birds at the Natural History Museum says that the acquisition of the notebooks means that the museum now has more scope to research them in detail, providing important information about the threatened Ridley Beach colony of Adélie penguins.

“The area Levick studied around Ridley Beach, Cape Adare will probably be abandoned in the near future due to the rising sea level in this region,” Douglas says “The birds will likely retreat to higher elevations at Cape Adare and the Scott Coast will be reoccupied.”

Levick’s  unpublished notes on the Adélie penguins were studied closely by Douglas for the first time back in 2012, after over a century of censorship.  

“The research we undertook in 2012 gave the story of the rediscovery of a paper he tried unsuccessfully to publish on the sexual behaviours he witnessed but this is only a tiny fraction of the notebooks,” Douglas says.

“They are an incredible, largely unexplored first-hand account of the natural history of Cape Adare, Antarctica, from the heroic age of Polar Exploration – they are also the first full account of the world’s largest Adélie penguin colony.”

Many of the behaviours observed by Levick have, over the years, been confirmed by several scientists, meaning Levick was quite ahead of his time.