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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 15, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 24
Bad penguins: bird sex horrified polar explorer
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Bad penguins: bird sex horrified polar explorer

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Century-old journals newly published by England's Natural History Museum show that polar explorer Dr. George Murray Levick was so offended by the sexual habits of Antarctic penguins that he suppressed all the notes he wrote about them.

Levick was chief medical officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole (1910-12). Stranded by bad weather at the expedition's base camp, Levick was unable to join Scott on the sled trip to the pole.

That accident of weather saved his life. Scott and all the men with him were lost on the return journey.

While hunkered down at Cape Adare, Levick became the first person to spend an entire breeding season with an Adélie penguin colony, and he documented the penguins' habits - including their sex lives - in great detail.

Penguin sex proved to be too wild for the doctor, however.

Levick was shocked to find male penguins mating with other males, males trying to mate with dead females, males sexually coercing females and even chicks, and some males even killing their sex partners.

He was so disturbed by what he described as 'depraved' penguin sex that he modestly recorded his notes on it in Greek - he had a flawless classical education - rather than English.

When Levick returned to England and thought of publishing his notes, the subject matter was judged to be too lurid for publication. An official of the Natural History Museum suggested to him that only 100 copies be printed and circulation limited to a select group of scientists.

The notes came to light only recently, when museum curator Douglas Russell discovered one of the copies by accident.

'I just happened to be going through the file on George Murray Levick when I shifted some papers and found underneath them this extraordinary paper which was headed 'The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin, Not for Publication' in large black type,' Russell explained.

'It's just full of accounts of sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex, and finishes with an account of what he considers homosexual behavior, and it was fascinating.'

The printed report and Levick's handwritten notes are now on display at the Natural History Museum for the first time. Russell says they show a man who struggled to cope with what he saw the penguins doing.

'He's just completely shocked,' Russell said.

'He, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap as an awful lot of people in seeing penguins as bipedal birds and seeing them as little people. They're not. They are birds and should be interpreted as such.'

While Levick believed he was witnessing the 'perverted' sexcapades of 'hooligan' males, Russell says there are natural explanations for the birds' behavior.

'What is happening there is not in any way analogous to necrophilia in the human context,' Russell said. 'It is the males seeing the positioning that is causing them to have a sexual reaction.

'They are not distinguishing between live females who are awaiting congress in the colony, and dead penguins from the previous year which just happen to be in the same position.'

The penguins Levick observed were not 'hooligans,' Russell says - they were simply responding to the biological imperatives of a very short mating season.

'Adélies gather at their colonies in October to start to breed,' Russell explained. 'They have only a few weeks to do that and young adults simply have no experience of how to behave. Many respond to inappropriate cues.

'Hence the seeming depravity of their behavior. For example, a dead penguin, lying with its eyes half-open, is very similar in appearance to a compliant female. The result is the so-called necrophilia that Levick witnessed and which so disgusted him.'

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