The Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguins
The Sexual Habits Of The Adélie Penguins is a 100-year-old paper graphically describing the bizarre sexual practices of Adélie penguins written by George Levick, who joined Captain Scott on his Terra Nova expedition in 1911. He spent an entire Antarctic summer studying the reproductive behaviour of the species.
As a post-Edwardian gentleman, Levick was understandably taken aback by the “astonishingly depraved” acts he saw, and struggled to describe them. Douglas Russell, of the Natural History Museum’s zoology department, says “He witnesses things that profoundly shock him, to the point of being incapable of even writing them in English — he was so worried about it he started to encode it in Greek.” Nevertheless, he took to the task at hand and wrote in extraordinary detail of the “hooligan cocks … whose passions seemed to have passed beyond their control”.
Surrounded by tens of thousands of rampantly copulating birds - “sometimes more than once a day”, Levick notes with awe - he depicted a city under attack by delinquents on the verge: “Many of the colonies … are plagued by little knots of ‘hooligans’ who hang about their outskirts, and should a chick go astray it stands a good chance of losing its life at their hands. It is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.”
He also gives accounts of apparent necrophilia, however, necrophilia, as Levick perceived it, is a human term, and therefore hardly likely to explain penguin behaviour. Low temperatures in the Antarctic did preserve countless dead birds and, male or female, if their frozen corpses happened to be assuming the position, a passing penguin could not pass up the opportunity to mount it. You can understand Levick’s suspicions.
Levick went on to witness what he struggles to describe as a kind of gang rape, with one female paralysed by the cold water [which is] spotted by [a male] and, “after a short inspection, he deliberately copulated with her, she being, of course, quite unable to resist him,” before six more try their luck, with varying degrees of success. The behaviours themselves can all be explained away now, of course, and are detailed here.
Levick’s thinly veiled judgement demonstrates a common practice that many fall into. “There is a dreadful habit of anthropomorphising penguins, dominantly because they are bipedal,” says Russell. Levick was therefore appalled by the behaviours he saw, holding the Adélie population up against human standards of morality: “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,” he comments at one point. One reviewer of Levick’s published paper put it well when he said in 1915: “The book is unique, and will appeal to… the public at large for whom these strange, erect, man-like little birds have a strange fascination.”