The Sexual Depravity of Adelie Penguins Is One of Science’s Dirtiest SecretsS

Anybody who really enjoyed Happy Feet and the Morgan Freeman lullaby March of the Penguins should probably stop reading this post before learning that male Adelie penguins are depraved little sex gremlins and British naturalists have been sitting in their mahogany clubhouses, drinking Scotch and dryly mocking our misguided adoration of these flightless birds ever since 1913, when scientist George Murray Levick returned from the Scott Antarctic Expedition with horror stories about rampant penguin necrophilia. If you've made it this far, congratulations — you'll never be able to watch little Mumble tap dance with the same innocence again.

In fact, it's penguins like Mumble — sexually inexperienced juvenile males — that Levick observed debasing themselves from 1911-12 at Cape Adare. Levick, a modest "Edwardian Englishman" according to the Guardian, was acutely unnerved by the sexual perversions he witnessed, and chronicled all the nasty sex stuff he witnessed, which included male penguins having sex with dead female penguins, male penguins other male penguins, and male penguins sexually coercing females and chicks, and sometimes killing their unwilling partners. These behaviors scandalized Levick so much that he recorded them in Greek so that only other especially erudite scientists could read about them, if they dared. His lurid record, Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin, remained relatively secret until Douglas Russell, curator of birds at London's Natural History museum, discovered it among other records of the Scott expedition and had it published.

Levick attributed the startling penguin behavior to what he termed "hooligan bands" of unpaired males that lurk on the outskirts of the Adelie colony and engaged in "constant acts of depravity." Researchers today have learned that these "acts of depravity" are the result of the narrow window penguins have for breeding in October. Inexperienced male penguins that haven't yet learned the appropriate breeding "cues" may mistake a dead female with half open eyes for a willing mate, since such a pose would almost identically mimic the appearance of a receptive partner.

In an effort to explain Levick's shock, Russell is quick to remind us that Levick was "a gentleman, travelling with a group of men in very difficult circumstances, witnessing behaviour he neither expected nor understood." Penguins, he further explains, are also "the most humanlike of birds" — the walk upright and, as a result, their behavior is often anthropomorphized, which is both why Levick might have been so weirded out by their sexual behavior and why we make movies about them line dancing to pop music. Oh wait, that's all over now. Thanks, science.

'Sexual depravity' of penguins that Antartic scientist dared not reveal [Guardin]