Penguin sex habits study rediscovered at Museum

09 June 2012

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A study on the sex lives of penguins, suppressed 100 years ago for being  too explicit, has finally been published after its rediscovery at the Natural History Museum.

Levick's notebook on the sexual habits of Adélie penguins written in 1911.

Levick's notebook on the sexual habits of Adélie penguins written in 1911.

The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguins, written in 1915 by Dr George Levick, includes his descriptions of ‘hooligan' behaviour such as sexual coercion.

Levick was a surgeon and the medical officer on the famous 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition, Terra Nova, led by Captain Scott.

He studied the penguins at Cape Adare, which has the largest Adélie penguin colony in the world. He recorded a lot of detail, even noting the arrival of the very first penguin at the colony on 13 October 1911 - one of hundreds of thousands that would spend summer there.

Levick's observations of sexual behaviour, however, were thought to be too graphic for society at that time and so the 4-page pamphlet wasn't published with the other Terra Nova expedition reports.

Dr George Murray Levick. His notes on the sexual habits of penguins were ahead of his time.

Dr George Murray Levick. His notes on the sexual habits of penguins were ahead of his time. © Scott Polar Research Institute

The pamphlet lay hidden in the bird collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring and was only recently uncovered by Douglas Russell, bird curator at the Museum.

'Levick's notes were decades ahead of their time and possibly the first ever attempt to reveal the more challenging aspects of bird behavioural strategies to the academic world,' says Russell.

Russell and his colleagues, including Prof William Sladen of John Hopkins Medical Institutions, USA, and penguin researcher David Ainley, have reinterpreted Levick's observations and published the study in the Cambridge University Press journal Polar Record.

'I'm very pleased that, 97 years after Levick submitted it for publication, the study has finally been published,' says Russell. No other studies have been published on the penguins of the Cape Adare colony.

No crime too low!

As an Edwardian scientist, Levick couldn't help but interpret the behaviour he saw in human moral terms. He was so shocked by what he saw he even wrote in Greek to disguise the information. 'There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,' he wrote.

Adélie penguin with its chick. Photo taken by George Levick.

Adélie penguin and chick. Photo taken by George Levick. Levick's notes described how some 'hooligan' penguins hung around the outskirts of the Cape Adare colony and terrorised other birds.

Levick described 'little knots of hooligans', penguins that hung around the outskirts of the colony, terrorising any chicks that went astray. He wrote, 'The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.'

He observed and commented on the frequency of Adélie penguin sexual activity, autoerotic behaviour, the behaviour of young unpaired males and females including necrophilia, sexual coercion, the sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex and homosexual behaviour.

Changes since Levick's time

A lot has changed in the study of natural history since Levick's time, resulting in a much better understanding of animal behaviour.

'Over the course of the last 50 years there has gradually been more freedom and willingness to objectively interpret sexual behaviours in animals,' adds Russell.

Same-sex sexual behaviour has now been documented in many animals including mallards, European swallows, and sand martins.

Today, it is understood that acts like necrophilia are not the same in penguins as in humans. Penguins are chemically wired to respond to a seemingly compliant female of breeding age, rather than being sexually aroused.

Super breeders

'Penguin research has come a long way since Levick's day,' says Ainley. 'These days we're not so much concerned with hooligans and the follies of young penguins, but rather the fact that only about 15% of the breeders consistently raise young.' 

He says that the remaining 'hooligan' birds are little more than 'background noise' when seasonal changes bring challenges to raising chicks. It is 'super breeders' that determine whether or not the penguins as a whole cope with these changes.

'These ''super breeders'', as we call them, are great athletes. Compared to the ''rabble'', they dive deeper, more often (they have a shorter recovery between dives), have shorter foraging trips, and bring back larger food loads to their young. 

'We're trying to figure out what is behind their ability,' adds Ainley. 'Is it learned or inherited?'

Museum collection and exhibition

One hundred copies of Levick's 4-page pamphlet were printed but only 2 are known to still exist.

Levick's original unbound pamphlet is looked after at the Museum at Tring in the ornithological (bird) collections. His notes, which are part of a private collection, as well as Adélie penguin specimens he collected from Cape Adare, are on display in the Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition at the Museum in London.

Penguin pioneer

Russell concludes, 'These extraordinary unpublished notes illustrate how, 100 years on from the British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition’s fateful conclusion, modern scientists can re-visit, re-interpret and re-evaluate the expedition members’ original notes and investigations.'

Levick was a pioneer of research on Adélie penguin biology, the team says. And nearly a century on, his observations are available to the scientific community, as he had intended.

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