Douglas Russell, curator of avian eggs and nests at London’s Natural History Museum, was shuffling through an old file one day in 2011 or 2012 (the exact date is lost in the annals of time) when he happened upon a pamphlet stamped “NOT FOR PUBLICATION.” He immediately consumed this titillating, century-old tale of sex, debauchery, and penguins. While many of us might have been shocked by the discovery, Russell remained unflappable, as he was quite familiar with birds and all their sins.
Russell had found a pamphlet entitled “The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin” by explorer, surgeon, and zoologist Dr. George Murray Levick. A member of the 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica, Levick primarily spent his time observing a colony of Adélie penguins. He photographed the birds and took extensive notes on their behavior. After his return to England, his notes were transformed into two publications: “Antarctic Penguins – A Study of Their Social Habits” (1914) and “Natural History of the Adélie Penguin” (1915).
However, not everything from Levick’s notes made it into these publications. Due to their “graphic” nature, his accounts of the penguins’ sexual habits were largely removed. That information was saved for the previously mentioned pamphlet – “The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin.” Only 100 copies were made and circulated among various members of the scientific community.
So, what kind of shenanigans were these penguins engaging in? On the less salacious end of things, he observed male penguins masturbating themselves against the ground and mated pairs engaging in sexual behavior after they had laid their eggs. But it didn’t end there. (If you have pearls, now is the time to clutch them, as it’s about to get a little intense.) Levick witnessed male penguins engaging in sexual behavior with the corpses of other penguins. These male penguins would also engage in violent sexual behavior with chicks and injured adults. Most of this was done by young male penguins who Levick referred to as “hooligan cocks.” After reporting on one particularly brutal attack by these hooligans, Levick wrote “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.”
“There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.”
While Levick’s horrified reaction to the violent behavior is understandable, it is also a good reminder of how the values, norms, and emotions of “objective” scientists and academics can impact how data is observed, interpreted, and disseminated. Notably, Levick’s observations on male penguins engaging in same-sex sexual behavior were also left out of his published work. Due to the prevailing narratives of the time about same-sex behaviors and relationships being “immoral” or “unnatural,” these notes were tossed into the naughty penguin box along with everything else
Adélie Penguins are just one of the over 1,500 species of animals in which same-sex sexual behavior has been observed. As we better understand the impact our values and biases have, and as scientists themselves become a more diverse bunch, new and exciting information and theories are emerging to more fully explain animal sexual behavior. One of the many benefits of increasing diversity in science is the inclusion of new voices, perspectives, and directions that provide us with a richer, more accurate picture of the world we live in.
We still should avoid hiring penguins, though. They will embezzle your grant funds. That’s just what they do.
To read more about Levick and his bands of hooligans, check out:
BBC article about the discovery of Levick’s pamphlet
Article in the scientific journal, Polar Record
To read more about same-sex sexual behavior among animals, check out:
this post from Scientific American.