Levick's 'Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin' Published After a Century of Censorship

State Library of Victoria Collections/CC BY 2.0

Dr. George M. Levick, medical doctor on the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition of 1910 spent considerable time observing, photographing, and taking notes on what is now known to be the largest colony of Adélie Penguins at Cape Adare.

Notes on the "sexual activity, autoerotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females" were suppressed from the official scientific publications resulting from the expedition, but were collected in a 4-page pamphlet printed in limited edition of 100 copies for the use of zoologists.

One of these pamphlets, bearing the bold header 'Not for Publication', was recently rediscovered at the Natural History Museum at Tring, in London.

Accurate, Valid, Deserving of Publication

The lost pamphlet has now been published in the journal Polar Record, reflecting the change in scientific reaction to observations of animals which are described in the article as "accurate, valid and, with the benefit of hindsight, deserving of publication."

Levick's published treatise, Antarctic penguins – a study of their social habits (Levick 1914), appeared without reference to the good doctor's notes on auto-erotic behavior or penguin homosexual acts.

Levick's contemporary, American ornithologist Witmer Stone, sheds some light on the how the public might have received such reports when he describes the penguins: "these strange, erect, man-like little birds have a strange fascination." Levick himself reflects an anthropomorphic viewpoint that would not pass muster in modern scientific study of animal behavior when he describes the 'crimes' of unmated males, which Levick refers to as 'hooligan cocks': "it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness."

Coded Notebook Entries

Levick's original handwritten notebooks betray his concern about the accessibility of his discoveries. He wrote some of his observations directly into his notebooks using the Greek alphabet, and censored additional entries at a later point by re-writing them in Greek and pasting the coded versions over his original notes.

Not every entry on sexual behavior merited such self-censorship. For example, frequent copulation after chicks have hatched and even a scene described by Levick in his notes as the 'rape' of an injured hen appear in English.

The authors of the article question the consistency of the use of Greek for coding observations, based on their assessment that Levick found the rape episode "equally shocking." However, it must be assumed that copulation for purposes other than reproduction and even the forced coupling of a male with a female ranked somewhat below the acts of necrophilia or homosexual pairing that spurred Levick to code such entries in his notes.

Sadly, the scientific value of Levick's pioneering Antarctic research seems to have been lost to subsequent zoologists, as have almost all of the 100 pamphlets. Scientific interpretation of the penguin sexual behaviors observed by Levick have evolved, and are now understood in the context of the evolutionary pressures in penguin habitats, rather than as 'depraved' behaviors of a degenerate species.

As the authors (Douglas G.D. Russell, William J.L. Sladena, and David G. Ainley) rightly conclude: "it seems appropriate that nearly a century later, his observations, as he intended them to be read, should be fully available to the scientific community."

The authors have included the 'Sexual habits of the Adélie penguin’ by. G.M. Levick as an appendix to their article.

Tags: Animals | Antarctica | Birds | London

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