Suppressed records of “depraved sex acts” by penguins finally released after a century

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:

Fig. 1. Detail of entry from Vol. I of G.M. Levick’s ‘Zoological notes from Cape Adare’ on 10 November 1911 showing
coded reference in the Greek alphabet.

Levick’s unpublished notes on depraved penguins have just become widely available in a paper in Polar Biology, which is probably behind a paywall.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A previously unpublished four-page pamphlet by Dr.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!

Scandalous! Adelie penguins mating, image courtesy of mbsbird at http://www.flickriver.com/photos/mgsbird/3821414790/

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

53 thoughts on “Suppressed records of “depraved sex acts” by penguins finally released after a century

  1. First, it was “gay” penguins. Now, this depravity. The only thing I want to know is … How do I become a penguin?!

    Seriously, I just love how the media picks up on projection of human traits onto birds. Next thing you know, penguins will be in the grocery store tabloids and Jerry Springer!

  2. This is actually English but he was using the Greek alphabet. I can read Greek and this is certainly not it.

    I would call it ‘Greeklish’, however this refers to the opposite ie writing Greek using the Latin alphabet.

    1. Well, Levick’s notes could have been seen by some of the lower orders. I imagine conditions were cramped on such an expedition. This is an old trick. Boswell kept some of his notes on his life of Johnson in such script, eg following a mating with a serving wench he wrote, using Greek letters “Peggy was fat in the buttocks”.
      All hardly surprising when one considers that as late as 1960 at the trial of the publishers of Lady Chatterly’s Lover the Judge in addressing the jury asked them to consider whether this was a book they would wish their wives or servants to read.

    2. After the top two lines, I read the rest of the page thus:

      This afternoon I saw a most extraordinary sight. A penguin was actually engaged in sodomy upon the body of a dead white throated bird of its own species. The act occupied 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 though, down to the final depression of the cloaca.
      On returning to the tent I told Browning, hardly expecting to be believed, but to my surprise he at once said that he had seen the same thing several times, done to dead bodies near the ice foot.

      (No idea why he switched back to Greeklish in the last line after most of the paragraph in Romlish, but he obviously wasn’t thinking much about the choice of letters, e.g. using Roman ‘c’ instead of kappa in ‘occupied’, and chi at the start of ‘cloaca’.)

    3. This was a fairly “popular” code it seem: Bertland Russel apparently used it to write his diary to hide its contents from his guardians. A bit silly for use as a code though, since the preponderance of Greek symbols in mathematics notation means that anybody with a decent high-school level knowledge of mathematics would probably be able to read most of it with little difficulty.

      1. Using greek symbols are easy code to conceal info, it is quite common in my time. A lot of high school students know the greek symbols though not the Greek proper.

    4. My father had a bilingual copy of The 12 Caesars by Suetonius: one page Latin, the opposite a translation into English. In the chapter on Tiberius when it gets to the description of his unrestrained and unconventional sex life at his private villa on Capri, it switches to Latin on both sides. I have seen another version of this where it switches to Greek instead! I don’t recall any Penguins on Capri though

      1. Penguins, “Oh tempora, oh mores”, Capri, depravity.All I can say is “Fnarr, Fnarr”

        1. OIC, wordpress has converted my alter ego “Aidan Karley” into my other alter ego, “Gravel Inspector”.Excuse me (and my penguin) for not losing any sleep over this. BTW, I also answer to “RockDoctor” in varios places, though I’ll confess to not having a PhD (I acquired the nickname amongst people who thought that doctors of medicine had doctorates.)

    1. My guess is that someone, somewhere decorated a piano (as I heard the myth) with ruffly “panties” – sillier things happen – and someone else assumed that prudery was the motive and the legend took off.

  3. I recall the Greeks having a few bits of sexual behavior we don’t approve of today either.

  4. Those dirty birds, shame on every one of them. It sounds like their all full of the devil.

      1. (Loading the linked article in another tab)
        At least one of the 1900-ish Antarctic attempts took “reindeer” sleeping bags, so bearskins wouldn’t astonish me.
        Link open …Ah, you can tell it’s a spoof. No self-respecting penguin would wear eyebrow-liner like that. Unless it was from Essex. Everyone knows that Essex Penguins are easy. “Loose as a goose,” one could say.

  5. Ok. But I’ll tell you the truth, I’m also disturbed by this:

    “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.”

    My sensibilities are quite modern. Perhaps we could extend some empathy and understanding to George Murray Levick?

  6. It is interesting to note that the 2005 French documentary “The March of the Penguins” (“La Marche de l’empereur”) was embraced by the religious right as promoting Family Values. The movie critic Michael Medved endorsed it as such. (The French team that produced it was surprised). Medved and his co-thinkers blithely ignored the fact that Emperor Penguins are monogamous for only one season, and choose a new mate each year.

    I don’t know whether Emperor Penguins are as iniquitous as Adelie Penguins, but between them they certainly make clear that the idea that nature is there to teach us moral lessons is ludicrous.

    1. documentary “The March of the Penguins” (“La Marche de l’empereur”) was embraced by the religious right as promoting Family Values. The movie critic Michael Medved

      Medved? MEDVED?That is Russian for (approximately) “bear that is about to eat your face. No, you don’t get to discuss philosophy, or smoke Gauloise at it, first.”(A little cuddly, Ceiling Cat protected, face-licking bear is a “mishka”. Leading to the Russian gay underground song that “Medved Is Putin’s malinki Mishka”. Which may be incredibly insulting to Mishka Putin, if it were true.

  7. “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.”

    It tells much about the Americans who invented the myth and were more squeamish about sex than the English they projected it on. Condoms are known in some parts as “French letters” – for similar reasons.

  8. Recording the salacious bits in Greek (or at least the Greek alphabet) has a distinguished history. In the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon recorded the more depraved behavior of his subjects in Greek footnotes. I recall that Theodora, wife of Justinian, enjoyed something involving geese (perverse birds again!) and grain spread over her body.

    1. I am … “educated” by the denizens of this website.
      Even if I can’t get paragraph breaks right (see up-thread).
      But I’ll try to keep the pecker … ummm … up?

    1. C’mon, Emma (?), be a bit more imaginative. I’m sure Jerry appreciates the re-blogs … but ..
      Here’s a hat :
      Your small textual contribution, please?

    1. I thought that “Depraved Penguins” were one of Malcolm McLaren’s bands from the late ’70s. I’m sure I’ve got a 78 of there’s somewhere …

      1. But then we would need to forget that mormon christians are particularly vocal about their hatred of pornography yet the Utah population is one of the highest consumers of pornography.

        My point, of course, is that christians actions are frequently the opposite of what they preach about. Which does present a problem if a cohesive society is desired.

    2. They were without sin until an eel tempted the first penguin to eat of the fish of knowledge. That’s why we all think fish give you brains where actually it instils depravity.

      There are no atheist penguins on ice floes when the killer whales are jumping. Or so I’m told.

  9. Those pesky birds, and it’s not restricted to penguins. From C.W. Moeliker (2001) article in Deinsea:

    “On 5 June 1995 an adult male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) collided with the glass façade of the Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam and died. An other drake mallard raped the corpse almost continuously for 75 minutes. Then the author disturbed the scene and secured the dead duck. Dissection showed that the rape-victim indeed was of the male sex. It is concluded that the mallards were engaged in an ‘Attempted Rape Flight’ that resulted in the first described case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard.”

  10. Morgan Freeman narrated March of the Penguins. They were portrayed as tough, resilient creatures, who had adapted to the inhospitable climate of Antarctica over the milleniums; weathering killer storms; and the moms commuting 70 miles and back for the crill needed to feed their young chick back home. Dad, meanwhile, sat on the egg to keep it warm, and watch out for predators [like sea gulls]. In all of his talk of warm and fuzzy chicks, and tough as nails older birds, Morgan Freeman never once mentioned the penguins’ proclivity for perversion.

  11. Ahhh, the bliss of a good h/t … and I get to read it with a documentary about the Punk of my yoof on the TV-Recorder-Box too. Such bliss deserves a good snifter of fine whiskey. JAC, next time you’re in Scotland (or where you can divert to Geol.Soc.Lond., or the LeftHand Shop), advise me of where to deliver the high-grade liver-damage fluid.

    1. Checks stocks : best I’ve got is Talisker 10yo ; Obviously such material can only be safely purchased at the distillery, so please advise me (everyone) of your preferences.
      I’ve got a New Rose!I’ve got it now!

  12. Herbert Ponting, the photo-/cinematographer of the Scott expedition, took a more sympathetic angle to anthromorphizing the Adélie penguins. His classic ‘The “Glad Eye” Penguin’ was presented to King George V, became a popular postcard subject, and served iconically to illustrate Ponting’s speech tour posters after WWI, despite or perhaps because of the slightly osé touch.
    http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/2580026/the-glad-eye

    Ponting went absolutely gaga over the Adélies. Several of his penguin pictures are available online at the Royal Geographical Society, e.g. this “assault”:
    http://images.rgs.org/imageDetails.aspx?barcode=8773
    They include snapshots of Levick’s work on the penguins (search for “Levick skinning a penguin on the Terra Nova”).

    Some of Levick’s own penguin pictures, remarkable for “action freezing”, are to be found even on Flickr.

    In the wider context of the Scott expedition, one image by Ponting is particularly symbolic: “Adélie penguin track and sledge track crossing”.
    For a reproduction, e.g. this study, Fig. 14:
    http://eprints.utas.edu.au/9587/4/Camera_artist_in_Antarctica_chap2.pdf

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