O tempora! O mores! As the BBC reports, a publication about the behavior of Adélie penguins, written by George Murray Levick after joining the 1910 Antarctic expedition of Captain Scott, has just come to light after more than a century. Apparently Levick was so scandalized by the depraved and salacious behavior of the penguins that he recorded that behavior in Greek in his notebooks (see below). The BBC reports:
Mr Levick, an avid biologist, was the medical officer on Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910. He was a pioneer in the study of penguins and was the first person to stay for an entire breeding season with a colony on Cape Adare.
He recorded many details of the lives of adelie penguins, but some of their activities were just too much for the Edwardian sensibilities of the good doctor.
He was shocked by what he described as the “depraved” sexual acts of “hooligan” males who were mating with dead females. So distressed was he that he recorded the “perverted” activities in Greek in his notebook.
On his return to Britain, Mr Levick attempted to publish a paper entitled “the natural history of the adelie penguin”, but according to Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum, it was too much for the times.
“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,” Mr Russell said.
The sexual behaviour section was not included in the official paper, but the then keeper of zoology at the museum, Sidney Harmer, decided that 100 copies of the graphic account should be circulated to a select group of scientists.
Mr Russell said they simply did not have the scientific knowledge at that time to explain Mr Levick’s accounts of what he termed necrophilia.
Here’s some of that Greek:
Levick’s unpublished notes on depraved penguins have just become widely available in a paper in Polar Biology, which is probably behind a paywall. The reference is below, and I’ll reproduce the abstract:
A previously unpublished four-page pamphlet by Dr. George Murray Levick R.N. (1876–1956) on the ‘Sexual habits of the Adélie penguin’ was recently rediscovered at the Natural History Museum (NHM) at Tring. It was printed in 1915 but declined for publication with the official expedition reports. The account, based upon Levick’s detailed field observations at Cape Adare (71°18′S, 170°09′E) during the course of the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition 1910, commented on frequency of sexual activity, autoerotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks, non-procreative sex and homosexual behaviour. His observations were however accurate, valid and, with the benefit of hindsight, deserving of publication. Here we publish the pamphlet in its entirety, reinterpret selected observations and comment on its significance as a forgotten work by the pioneer of research on Adélie penguin Pygoscelis adeliae (Hombron and Jacquinot 1841) biology.
What did Levick see that so offended his senses? Here are three observations that I’ve reproduced from the Polar Record paper:
Many of the colonies, especially those nearer the water, are plagued by little knots of ‘hooligans’ who hang about their outskirts, and should a chick go astray it stands a good chance of losing its life at their hands. 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.
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]
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.
It’s striking that things which zoologists now take for granted as biological adaptations, or byproducts of adaptations, were considered so offensive that they had to be described in Greek, and couldn’t be circulated to the wider scientific community! Such were Victorian times. I’m told that some Victorians even put “pants” around table legs since the sight of such a naked leg was considered offensive.
The suppression of Levick’s data says a lot about the relationship among animals, humans, and morality, but I’ll leave that to the historians of science. It also shows that biologists at the time were far more educated in classics than their modern counterparts!
h/t: Aidan Karley and many others after him
Russell, D. G. D, W. J. L. Sladen, and D. G. Ainley. 2012. Dr. George Murray Levick (1876-1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin. Polar Record, FirstView Article : pp 1-7