The disgusting sex life of the Adélie penguin

I’m writing a series of lectures to deliver when I’m a guest speaker on two Antarctic cruises this October and November. One of my talks will be on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1913, in which Scott and his crew, arriving in Antarctica aboard the eponymous ship, attempted to reach the South Pole. Scott actually made it along with four of his men, only to find that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him to the Pole by a little over a month. What a bummer it was for them to see the Norwegian flag flying over their destination!

And, as you may know, all five of Scott’s team died on the way back: one from a concussion, one (Titus Oates), suffering from severe frostbite, walking to his death in a blizzard so he wouldn’t slow the other three, and then the last three, including Scott, freezing to death in their tent—only 11 miles from a cache of food that they couldn’t reach in the blizzard conditions.

One of the reasons Amundsen may have beaten Scott is because a major part of the Terra Nova expedition was to do science, which might have slowed them down. (Scott’s group, for example, dragged 30 pounds of Glossopteris fossils behind them on the way back from the Pole.) Scott’s group was constituted and instructed to make observations on zoology, geology, weather, ice movement, paleontology, and, of course, to collect specimens.

My talk will be on the science of the Terra Nova expedition, with an emphasis on evolutionary biology. Two of the aims, for example, were connected with evolution: collecting fossils (and they found some of the first evidence that Antarctica was once part of the large continent of Gondwanaland), and to determine, by looking at Emperor Penguin eggs, whether birds really were descended from reptiles. Getting the eggs, which ultimately failed to produce the kind of evidence they wanted, involved a horrendous journey to a breeding colony during the dark Antarctic winter. It was so cold that the men’s teeth froze and shattered. That story is a major part of the best book about the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (he’s referring to the Penguin Expedition, though it could also refer to Scott’s dash to the pole.)

Not mentioned in this book, but something I found in my researches, was that some of the important knowledge gleaned by the 12 scientists on Scott’s voyage never saw the light of day—at least until 2012.

The physician George Murray Levick, looking for observations to make, decided to spend twelve weeks observing the very large colony of Adélie Penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) on Cape Adare. This location is (or was) the largest breeding colony of these animals in the world, harboring several hundred thousand individuals. Here’s the location and a picture of the colony.

And here’s Levick with one of these delightful birds, which, as you’ll see, he didn’t find so delightful:

Levick filled two notebooks with his observations, and, when he returned to England, published two books on penguins, Antarctic Penguins—A Study of Their Social Habits, and the more technical Natural History of the Adélie Penguin. But he left out an important aspect of Adélie biology—their sexual habits.

What Levick found was that Adélies practiced all kinds of sexual behaviors that he found disgusting. They forcibly copulated with dead females, with chicks and their own offspring, and males bonked other males as well as living but resistant females. They also practiced autoerotic behavior, with males sometimes ejaculating spontaneously onto the ice.

Steeped in Victorian mores, Levick saw these as no different from human pedophilia, necrophilia, masturbation, homosexuality, and rape. And so, though he recorded all these behaviors in his notebooks, he never published them, except in a four-page pamphlet that was circulated privately, and in only 100 copies.

I found the whole story in this paper from Polar Record, which reproduces Levick’s pamphlet at the end (I’ve put it below; it’s short). Click on the screenshot to read the paper, which is short and very interesting! Scroll down at the end to see a video of Adélies.


Here’s one of Levick’s notebooks, which includes photos. But it also includes some notes in English transliterated into the Greek alphabet!

Here’s an example from the notebook, where he suddenly lapses into transliterated Greek (not translated, but simply English words written using the Greek alphabet):

Apparently what shocked him the most was seeing a penguin try to copulate with a dead individual of its own species. Here, taken from the paper above, is an example of the transliteration. If you know the Greek alphabet, you can read the Greek into English.

Now it’s not clear exactly why Levick lapsed into Greek; perhaps he didn’t want people going through his notebooks to read the English (sometimes he pasted the Greek transliteration over notes in English), and if you saw just the Greek you would assume it was real Greek and ignore it.

Levick was especially upset by the behavior of bachelor males, which he called “Hooligan Cocks” (“cocks” are males, not penises). Here’s a passage from his second published book, drawing a veil over the penguins’ behavior (my emphasis):

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 (Levick 1914: 97–98).

And this is what he wrote in his notebook after he saw males repeatedly try to copulate with a hen who, temporarily paralyzed with cold, was crawling towards her nest:

There seems to be no crime too low for these Penguins.

By assuming that penguin behavior evinced the same kind of immorality as humans engaged in “similar” acts, Levick was too embarrassed to publish these observations. In fact, though they all turned out to be correct, they weren’t replicated until David Ainley observed them in the 1960s and 1970s.  (Ainley even did an experiment, showing that males would try to copulate with just the frozen head of a penguin.) Thus, the anthropomorphizing of penguin behavior delayed the progress of penguin science for half a century.

Here’s the pamphlet that Levick kept from public view (click to enlarge), a document recovered and reprinted by Russell et al.

To lighten your mood after all that sexual misbehavior, here’s a video showing Adélies. They are not criminals!




  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    … all five of Scott’s team died on the way back: one from a concussion, one (Titus Oates), suffering from severe frostbite, walking to his death in a blizzard so he wouldn’t slow the other three, and then the last three, including Scott, freezing to death in their tent—only 11 miles from a cache of food that they couldn’t reach in the blizzard conditions.

    I took an undergrad Ethics course in the Philosophy Dept. in which the professor used Scott’s dilemma — whether to abandon the weaker members of his crew to lead the stronger to safety — as the case-study for the course. I recall the professor’s opening remarks in which he said we’d spend the quarter endeavoring to answer the question, “What ought Scott to do?”

    • Posted August 9, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      I have never found any information that Scott even thought about abandoning members of his expedition. He was, however, somewhat relieved that Evans and Oates died, not so much because they’d be a burden, but that they were spared needless suffering.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 9, 2019 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        In that case, I’m guessing the professor was posing it as a hypothetical — you know, like the trolley problem.

        Or maybe it was just more misinformation emanating from the humanities departments. 🙂

  2. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Come on Jerry, I thought you didn’t do clickbait titles.

  3. GBJames
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink


  4. Graham Head
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Will your lecture come with a trigger warning?

  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Sub – for a friend – I mean – someone I know …

    FOR SCIENCE as the kids say nowadays

  6. Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    “Now it’s not clear exactly why Levick lapsed into Greek”

    This sort of thing was common among Victorians when discussing sex! The idea was that the “common man” must be protected from the information, so it was written such that only the educated could read it.

    • Mark R.
      Posted August 9, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      That’s an interesting tidbit. And here I thought the “Little People” argument applied only to religion. 😉

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted August 9, 2019 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      What I’ve found is that the naughty bits in English were translated much more frequently into Latin than into Greek — medical texts abound in such pruderies, even explicitly erotic/sexual texts — talk about bleeping, long passages are rendered in Latin. However, when an English speaker edited a Latin text, as opposed to translating it, the naughty bits in Latin would be rendered in Greek, the languages becoming increasingly remote. In what language then were the naughty bits in Greek rendered? Linear B?

  7. Liz
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I’m glad he wrote down his observations and that they were eventually made available.

  8. Pat
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    JC, it would be very interesting to know the evolutionary reasons for this behaviour. Are there papers which describe this in greater detail.

    • Posted August 9, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the males are horny and have evolved indiscriminate copulation as the best way to spread their genes.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Dang, those Adélies are some libertines. They make bonobos seem like Mrs. Grundy.

  10. procatsitter
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    This post caught my attention as I’ll be travelling to Antarctica this December! What ship will you be on? I would have loved to hear your lectures but I’m probably on a different ship. 😦

    • dabertini
      Posted August 9, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes that would be a cruise well worth the dosh.

  11. rickflick
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    In spite of all the misspent behaviors, the Adele seem to be doing very well, numbers-wise-speaking.

  12. Bruce E Lyon
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Adelie penguins are not the only birds like this — it seems to be a seabird thing for some reason. A friend worked on bobbies in the Galapagos and reported some of the same things, like harassing chicks and trying to copulate with them. There may be other examples too (murres?)

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted August 9, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Boobies, not bobbies. Did not mean to impugn British police officers.

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted August 9, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Boobies, not bobbies. Did not meean to impugn British police.

  13. Liz
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    “…in some cases actually ejecting their semen on to the ground.”

    Reading all of this is making me wonder how/if the freezing temperature of the semen varies among penguin species and among other animals in different climates.

  14. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    “we saw stray chicks sexually misused by these hooligans”

    …You want to spend a Saturday night outside Wetherspoons mate.

  15. LG
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. Thanks for the post.

  16. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Shocking! 🙂
    And to think that Adélie penguins are considered monogamous!
    For all technical clarity: penguins have cloacas, no penises like ducks.

  17. Malcolm
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Whatever we think of the behaviour the evolutionary reasons behind it would be interesting. It seems bizarre as to us thereis no justification.

  18. jimroberts
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    “Mated couples copulate very frequently; sometimes more than once a day, not only before the eggs have been laid, but for long after … after the chicks were well grown.”
    The same has been observed in a well-studied primate species. My preferred explanation is that it helps to maintain the pair bond.

  19. Mark R.
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I found reading a famous scientist with such anthropomorphic bias as both interesting and entertaining. His severe disgust and derogatory monikers had me giggling a couple times. Man, those Victorians were bigger prudes than I thought.

    Thanks for this great post PCC(E); I’m sure your audience will be enthralled by your lecture. Wish I could be there.

  20. Charles Sawicki
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting! Male Adelie penguins need their special pronoun of address, It’s gonna have to be really long to encompass their sex life.

  21. James Walker
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Later today we are taking some visitors to Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, to see the “Penguin Parade”, in which fairy penguins who have been out at sea (apparently sometimes for weeks) emerge from the water at sunset and walk up the beach to their burrows. One thing that I have noticed on previous visits is that they engage in vigorous and noisy copulation en route (though I haven’t stopped to check the sex of their partners).

  22. kieran
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    A documentary on Tom Crean in Irish with subtitles.

  23. sgo
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Lucy Cooke also wrote about the Adelie penguins in her lovely book “The unexpected truth about animals”.

  24. revelator60
    Posted August 9, 2019 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Someone needs to tell the Guardian and Huffpo about the disgusting sex life of these birds. Imagine all the indignant editorials they could produce about toxic masculinity among Adélie penguins.

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