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New notes from Captain Scott’s 1910 polar expedition have been rediscovered that reveal strange sexual tendencies in Adelie Penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae).
The notes were rediscovered at the Natural History Museum in Tring, England by Douglas Russell. Russell said, “as it was boldly headed ‘Not for Publication’ it immediately caught my eye.” After finding the notes Russell had them published in the journal Polar Record because, as he stated, the notes “were decades ahead of their time and possibly the first ever attempt to reveal the more challenging aspects of bird behavioral strategies to the academic world.”
The notes were written by the surgeon and medical officer for the expedition, George Levick. The expedition, known as the “Terra Nova” expedition, began in 1910 and ended in 1913. The journey, led by Naval Captain Robert Falcon Scott, attempted to be the first trip to the South Pole, but unfortunately Roald Amundsen beat them there.
During the expedition Levick recorded details on the lives of the Adelie penguin colony on Cape Adare, now the world’s largest colony. Levick’s work was groundbreaking, then and now, because he is the only scientist to date that has stayed and studied the penguins for an entire breeding cycle.
Levick wrote a paper when he returned to England entitled The Natural History of the Adelie Penguin but he left out the portion discovered by Russell. Instead Levick wrote a separate pamphlet called The Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguins which was only given to a very select group of experts; so select that only one hundred copies were printed and only two remain.
What Levick observed horrified him as an English gentleman. His four-page pamphlet on this sexual deviation was printed in 1915 and detailed the penguins’ auto-erotic tendencies and aberrant behavior among unpaired youth such as necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex, and homosexual behaviors. Levick was so disturbed by the behaviors he observed that he recorded his notes in Greek to disguise his notes. Levick wrote, “there seems to be no crime too low for these penguins… it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.”
Levick recorded several of these instances in his journal writing: “I saw another act of astonishing depravity today. A hen which had been in some way badly injured in the hindquarters was crawling painfully along on her belly. I was just wondering whether I ought to kill her or not, when a cock noticed her in passing, and went up to her. After a short inspection he deliberately raped her, she being quite unable to resist him.”
Levick also recorded: “this afternoon I saw a most extraordinary site [sic]. A Penguin was actually engaged in sodomy upon the body of a dead white-throated bird of its own species. The act occurred a full minute, the position taken up by the cock differing in no respect from that of ordinary copulation, and the whole act was gone through down to the final depression of the cloaca.”
According to modern researchers these acts may have been viewed as horrifying to Levick because he was anthropomorphizing the penguins. Current research shows that male penguins are chemically hardwired to respond in particular ways to females of a breeding age who appear to be compliant. This chemical reason seems to explain why the penguins engaged in necrophilia and rape.
These notes are now useful because the Adelie penguins are considered indicators for climate change. The Adelie need pack ice to dive off of for fishing; knowing the behaviors of the penguins and how they have changed will help scientists to better reveal warning signs.
Levick was one of six members who were forced to spend an entire summer (or Antarctic winter) in an ice cave after they were blocked from their ship by ice. All six men survived and Levick went on to serve in World War I and founded the British Schools Exploring Society.