The sexual depravity of penguins

This story has come to me several times — first from Gregory Ward, with the Guardian‘s version, then from Chris Ambidge, with the BBC News version, then from friends on Facebook and on the Grapefeed site. Headers from the Guardian site:

‘Sexual depravity’ of penguins that Antarctic scientist dared not reveal

Landmark polar research about the Adélie penguin’s sex life by Captain Scott’s expedition, deemed too shocking for the public 100 years ago, is unearthed at the Natural History Museum

(story by science editor Robin McKie on the 9th). Not much linguistics here, beyond the inclination of people (including scientists) to anthropomorphize animal behavior.

The beginning of this story:

It was the sight of a young male Adélie penguin attempting to have sex with a dead female that particularly unnerved George Murray Levick, a scientist with the 1910-13 Scott Antarctic Expedition. No such observation had ever been recorded before, as far as he knew, and Levick, a typical Edwardian Englishman, was horrified. Blizzards and freezing cold were one thing. Penguin perversion was another.

Worse was to come, however. Levick spent the Antarctic summer of 1911-12 observing the colony of Adélies at Cape Adare, making him the only scientist to this day to have studied an entire breeding cycle there. During that time, he witnessed males having sex with other males and also with dead females, including several that had died the previous year. He also saw them sexually coerce females and chicks and occasionally kill them.

Levick blamed this “astonishing depravity” on “hooligan males” and wrote down his observations in Greek so that only an educated gentleman would understand the horrors he had witnessed. Back in Britain he produced a paper (in English), titled Natural History of the Adélie Penguin. However, the section about the animal’s sexual proclivities was deemed to be so shocking it was removed to preserve decency. Levick then used this material as the basis for a separate short paper, Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin, which was privately circulated among a handful of experts.

… Scientists had to wait another 50 years before the remarkable sexual antics of the Adélie were revealed. By this time his pamphlet and its detailed records of Adélie shenanigans had been lost to science.

But now a copy of Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin has been unearthed, thanks to sleuthing by Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum, who discovered a copy among records of the work of Scott’s expeditions and has had it published in the journal Polar Record, with an accompanying analysis of Levick’s work.

“The pamphlet, declined for publication with the official Scott expedition reports, commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour,” states the analysis written by Russell and colleagues William Sladen and David Ainley. “His observations were, however, accurate, valid and, with the benefit of hindsight, deserving of publication.”

 

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