Dr. George Murray Levick, medical officer on Captain Robert Scott’s 1910-13 South Pole expedition, wrote a short treatise on the “Sexual habits of the Adélie penguin”. Those habits were so objectionable that Levick’s article was not included with the published expedition report. A limited-edition pamphlet was published quietly and forgotten. However, a curator at the Natural History Museum in Tring (England) recently discovered a copy and published it in academic journal Polar Record with a scholarly introduction.
Full Polar Record article: Dr. George Murray Levick (1876–1956): unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin (PDF) (probably reposted without permission, so save it if you want to read it later).
The modern scholars gently deride Levick’s anthropomorphizing and moralizing description of some penguin practices as “depraved” and “criminal”, but they also describe Levick’s observations as “accurate” and “valid”.
Same-sex relationships among penguins have made pop science headlines recently. Levick described a homosexual coupling, which initially confused but apparently did not disgust him.
Here on one occasion I saw what I took to be a cock copulating with a hen. When he had finished, however, and got off, the apparent hen turned out to be a cock, and the act was again performed with their positions reversed, the original “hen” climbing on to the back of the original cock, whereupon the nature of their proceeding was disclosed.
The penguin sex practices which did outrage Levick were things that still outrage most modern humans, at least when performed by other humans. For example:
On November 10th, i.e. when the season was already a month advanced, I saw a cock engaged in the sexual act upon the dead body of a white-throated Adélie of the previous year. This took somewhat over a minute, the position taken up by the cock differing in no way from that of normal copulation, and the whole act was gone through, down to the final depression of the cloaca and emission of semen.
On returning to the hut I told one of my companions what I had seen, and to my surprise he at once said that he had on several occasions seen the same thing done to dead bodies along the ice-foot. Later on, this sight was by no means uncommon.
One day I was watching a hen painfully dragging herself across the rookery on her belly, using her flippers for propulsion as her legs trailed uselessly behind her.
As I was just wondering whether I ought to kill her or not, a cock, seeing her pass, ran out from the outskirts of a neighbouring knoll and went up to her. After a short inspection he deliberately copulated with her, she being, of course, quite unable to resist him. He had hardly left her before another cock ran up, and, without any hesitation, tried to mount her. He fell off at first, and then, desisting, stole two stones from neighbouring nests, dropped them one after the other in front of her, after which he mounted and performed the sexual act.
When he had gone, the poor hen struggled on about twenty yards, and then another cock ran up to her, and was just going to do the same thing when a fourth came up and fought him, driving him away, and afterwards did as the others had done.
As the season advanced, the number of unmated cocks increased to a great extent … These unmated cocks congregate 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.
When the chicks are young, the parents take great pains to keep them on their own nests, though occasionally they stray and lose their lives as a result. Very often they suffer indignity and death at the hands of the hooligan cocks, the waste of life resulting from this being very considerable. Frequently we saw strayed chicks sexually misused by these hooligans, some of them being crushed to such an extent that they died in consequence.
Some journalists and commenters have mocked Levick’s moralizing tone as old-fashioned priggishness or homophobia. This stance is inaccurate and self-serving. Levick wasn’t disgusted by gay penguins, he was disgusted by penguin gang-rapists. The lesson here is not that we moderns are more sexually sophisticated than people 100 years ago, but that passing moral judgment (whether positive or negative) on animal sexual practices by comparing them to human sexual practices is misguided.