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article image'Sexual depravity' of Adelie penguins shocked prudish explorers

By JohnThomas Didymus     Jun 13, 2012 in Environment
London - George Murray Levick, scientist with the 1910 Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott, conducted a study on the "Sexual Habits of Adelie Penguins." His paper was considered too "graphic" for publication and remained unknown until recently.
According to The Guardian, Levick, a biologist and medical officer on Captain Scott's Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910, was a "typical Edwardian gentleman" who was simply horrified at his observations of the "sexual depravity" of penguins. When he returned with the paper to England, his "graphic account" of field observations was considered unfit for publication.
The Guardian reports that Levick's first major shock during his field observations of the "sexual habits" of the penguins came when he observed a young male penguin attempting to have sex with a dead female. And as if that was not shocking enough, during the summer of 1911-12, he observed among the colony of Adelies at Cape Adare, males seeking to have sex with female corpses that had died the previous season and some sexually coercing females and chicks and killing them in the process.
Levick ascribed what he termed the "astonishing depravity" of the penguins to the sexual habits of "hooligan males" in the colony. According to Time, Levick, fearing to expose the reading public to the horrors of penguin homosexuality, necrophilia, masturbation and rape he witnessed, coded his report in Greek so that only highly educated gentlemen would read and appreciate the depth of depravity of penguins in the Antarctic wild.
BBC reports that when Levick returned to England, 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." Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum, who discovered a copy of the paper recently, commented: "...reports and memos [went] back and forth at the museum about this particular paper. They didn't seem to know what to do with it. In the end they decided to cut this paper. It is clear they felt it was too challenging to openly publish.”
When his volume in English language titled "Natural History of the Adelie Penguins" was published, care to taken to preserve public decency by expunging the "graphic section" titled "Sexual Habits of Adelie Penguins" that gave detailed account of the sexual behavior of the penguins.
According to BBC, the then keeper of zoology at the Natural History Museum decided to produce 100 copies of the paper and distribute among an exclusive circle of scientists. Thus, anxiety to preserve "public decency" deprived the scientific community and the general public information on the "remarkable sexual antics" of the Adelie. Levick's paper was lost to science and the information contained was unknown until about 50 years later, when a less squeamish generation of scientists discovered the facts themselves.
But recently, a copy of "Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin" was discovered. The Telegraph reports that Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum, discovered a copy of the paper among records of Scott's polar expedition and had it published in the journal Polar Record.
According to The Telegraph, Russell described the paper: “The manuscript is quite extraordinary. It is the most graphic account of challenging sexual behaviour you are every going to read. It is challenging now, but for 1915 when he submitted it for publication, it was extraordinary. It would have been a bombshell if they had published it at the time. At the time homosexuality was still illegal, so one reason he encoded his notes (in Greek) could be that he was fearful of the legal implications of his observations.”
BBC reports that Russell described how he found the paper: "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."'
Russell admits that the Levick's blow-by-blow account of penguin sexual perversion and "astonish depravity" was indeed "graphic." But Rusell found it "fascinating" rather than "offensive." He said: "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."
The Guardian reports Russell did an analysis of Levick's paper co-authored with two colleagues, William Sladen and David Ainley. Part of the analysis read: "The pamphlet, declined for publication with the official Scott expedition reports, commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour. His observations were, however, accurate, valid and, with the benefit of hindsight, deserving of publication."
In the paper Levick writes with evident feelings of disgust about the antics of male Adelies, who gather in "little hooligan bands of half a dozen or more and hang about the outskirts of the knolls, whose inhabitants they annoy by their constant acts of depravity." The Guardian reports that Levick described how "Injured females are mounted by members of these 'gangs,' others have their chicks 'misused before the very eyes of its parents.' Some chicks are crushed and injured, others are killed..."
More recent studies have explained the behavior of the "hooligan males" and have given insight that may throw light on aspects of "aberrant" human sexual behavior. According to the studies, the "hooligans" were young males who have no experience of how to behave and tend therefore to respond to "inappropriate cues." For instance, a young male would readily confuse a dead female frozen in the snow, and lying with an eye half-open, with the typical posture of a sexually receptive female, and thus attempt to mate. The results of this simple error of judgement among the inexperienced males are what uninformed anthropomorphizing observers would call "shocking" observations of "necrophilia."
The Guardian reports that scientists also note that penguins being human-like, because of their bipedal posture, tend to have their behaviour interpreted in anthropomorphic terms. Russell observed the anthropomorphizing tendency in Levick: "He was just completely shocked. He, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap as an awful lot of people in seeing penguins as bipedal birds and seeing them as little people. They're not.They are birds and should be interpreted as such."
According to Russell,"Levick was... a gentlemen traveling with a group of men in very difficult circumstances, witnessing behaviour he neither expected nor understood. It is not surprising that he was shocked by his findings."
Levick and his colleagues were lucky to survive the expedition. The were stranded in the cold wastes of the Antarctic over an entire winter after their expedition ship, the Terra Nova, could not pick them up because pack ice blocked its route. The men spent the winter huddled in an ice cave with no provisions and were forced to survive on "blubber, cooked with blubber" eaten in the light of "blubber lamps." According to an account of the hardship they endured over the winter, "Their clothes and gear were soaked with blubber, and the soot blackened them, their sleeping bags, cookers, walls and roof, choked their throats and inflamed their eyes."
The men made it back to England in 1913, and Levick served in the First World War. After the war, he founded the British Schools Exploring Society in 1932, and died in June 1956.
His obituary described him as a "truly great English gentleman."
The Guardian reports that his field notebook is now on display at the Natural History Museum until 2 September as part of the Scott's Last Expedition exhibition.
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