Levick became the first person to observe a full breeding cycle of Adelie penguins when stayed at the colony at Cape Adare for three months in 1911. 

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Terra Nova notebooks describing penguin sexual behaviours acquired by the Museum

Extraordinary notebooks from the Terra Nova Antarctic expedition of 1911 are available for study and research for the first time.

They are an important record of the natural history of Antarctica, an area now facing grave threats. However, they are best known for their infamous passages describing the penguin sexual behaviours.

On 15 June 1910 the Terra Nova expedition set sail from Cardiff, bound for the shores of Antarctica. On board were 65 men, including ship surgeon Dr George Murray Levick.

As was usual for this period of exploration, in addition to his duties as the doctor Levick also one of the crew's photographers and zoologists tasked with to recording and collecting the animals and plants encountered during the expedition.

When the ship arrived in Antarctica some six months later, Levick joined what would become the Northern Party. While Captain Scott and his team raced to the South Pole, Levick and his colleagues spent a year at Cape Adare to study the area's geology and wildlife.

This included what is now known to be the largest breeding colony of Adélie penguins in the world, thought to contain more than 300,000 birds.

Levick spent three months in 1911 living in and among the colony and became the first person to ever witness and study a full breeding season of Adélie penguins.  He took meticulous records of his day-to-day scientific observations on Antarctic penguins, seals and skuas.  He also included notes on the sexual behaviour of the penguins, which he encoded in the Greek alphabet and later unsuccessfully tried to publish.

But his notebooks contain more than what they have since become famous for. They are an astonishing window into a period of Antarctic exploration an unprecedented opportunity for primary research. 

The notebooks contain rich detail on the behaviours of not only penguins, but also the seal and skuas and other wildlife that frequents Cape Adare. Source: The Natural History Museum, London

Now that the Museum has acquired these unpublished notebooks, they will be available to study in detail by researchers, scientists and members of the public, so that the full documents can now be studied for the first time in detail.

'Some of the original zoology notebooks from the Terra Nova expedition are not now available for research,' explains Douglas Russell, a Senior Curator of Birds at the Museum, who has been delving into Levick's work.

'You might expect all of the manuscripts created during these expeditions were archived, but that's not the way things often worked out.'

'This will be the first time that modern science has had the opportunity to look at these first-hand accounts, allowing us to go back and revisit some of the zoological conclusions that were drawn from the final Scott expedition.

'The importance of original manuscripts such as these cannot be underestimated as they add crucial contextual and scientific data to our existing collections.'

The sexual behaviour of penguins

The notebooks are probably best known for a few particularly notorious passages.

While Levick was observing the penguin colony at Cape Adare he witnessed a range of sexual behaviours among the penguins, including most notably the behaviour of young unpaired males and females, which involved necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex and homosexual activity.  

Levick's notebooks are perhaps most well known for the passages describing some aspects of the penguin's sexual behaviour which he encoded in the Greek alphabet. Source: The Natural History Museum, London

It would not be until a hundred years after Levick's observations that these behaviours would ever be reported in full to the public, when in 2012 Douglas and his colleagues finally published what Levick was unable to.

Now we have ways of explaining these behaviours, and accept that homosexual activity is found throughout the natural world - but at the time Levick encoded some of the notes recording these activates in the Greek alphabet, presumably to prevent others from reading them.

'We still don't have a definite explanation as to why he encoded these parts in Greek,' says Douglas. 'Using Greek to encode references to sex and sexual behaviours - especially in diaries and notebooks - has been noted elsewhere, most notably by the diarist Anne Lister, also known as Gentleman Jack.'

An intimate insight into polar exploration

Understandably, the Terra Nova expedition is most often remembered for the loss of Captain Scott's polar party in March 1912.

However, the undeniable tragedy of the pole journey can sometimes eclipse the expedition's extraordinary contribution to Antarctic science. Few realise that the expedition's scientific staff was the largest yet assembled for an Antarctic expedition.

From its inception, the plan had always been to undertake research in a diverse array of disciplines. This was planned both in-situ and back in the UK, as specimens would be brought back for further investigation. 

Levick's notebooks are a valuable record of the natural history of Antarctica, while also giving an intimate insight into the Terra Nova expedition. Source: The Natural History Museum, London

Much of Levick's writing studies penguins in beautiful detail. For example, on 21 October 1911 Levick wrote:

'It is getting dark, and the rookery is comparatively silent although on every knoll, two or three birds can be seen busily working, toddling to and fro, pitching stones & building their nests, thousands & thousands are lying at rest, their white breasts flat on the ground, and only their black backs and heads visible as they lie with their chins stretched forward on the ground…. A fine powdering of snow is falling.'

These passages allow us to get a far more intimate idea of what life was actually like for the explorers on a day-to-day basis, and gives vital context for the specimens later collected and given to the Museum. 

'The Levick notebooks are a vital addition to our existing collection and the scientific observations held in original manuscripts such as these remain as relevant and important today as when they were first created,' explains Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections at the Museum. 'We're delighted that Levick's work can now be accessed by academics, researchers and the public, more than a century after his seminal trip to Antarctica.'

The Museum will make Levick's notebooks physically and digitally available for future research, public outreach and education.

More information

With thanks to Friends of the National Libraries and The Murray Family who supported this acquisition.