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Depraved penguin sex shocks polar explorers

11th July 2012

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Observations taken over a century ago by a member of Captain Scott’s polar team are finally being made public.

Remarks noted, including ‘sexual coercion’ between penguins recorded by George Murray Levick, were removed from official records for being too shocking - although now the biological reasons behind the ‘depraved’ acts offer some explanation.

Enthusiastic biologist Mr Levick was the medical officer on Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910. He was the first to stay for the whole breeding season of a colony on Cape Adare, a pioneer in the study of penguins.

Back then some of the acts were too immoral for the Edwardian doctor; he was shocked by routines he described as ‘depraved’ sexual acts of ‘hooligan’ males mating with dead females. Levick even went so far as to record the ‘perverted’ activities in Greek in his notebook.

Returning to Britain, he did attempt to publish a paper called ‘The Natural History of the Adelie Penguin’ - but it was too much for straightlaced Victorian times.

Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum said: “He submitted this extraordinary and graphic account of sexual behaviour of the Adelie penguins, which the academic world of the post-Edwardian era found a little too difficult to publish.”

Only 100 copies of the graphic account were circulated to a small group of scientists; the official paper removed any trace of the sexual behaviour section.

Mr Russell said this was because they simply did not have the scientific knowledge at that time to explain what Mr Levick had termed necrophilia.

"What is happening there is not in any way analogous to necrophilia in the human context," Mr 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."

Out of the original 100 copies, only two survive. Mr Russell and others have now published a re-interpretation of Mr Levick’s findings in the journal Polar Record - although the findings were made 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 Adelie Penguin, not for publication' in large black type.

"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 behaviour, and it was fascinating."

If you fancy seeing these, the report and Levick’s handwritten notes are now on display at the Natural history Museum for the first time.

Not quite what we saw in Happy Feet then.


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