‘A Polar Affair’ delves into a centurylong cover-up of penguin sex


A Polar Affair

Lloyd Spencer Davis

Pegasus Books, $29.95

On March 29, 1912, British explorer
Robert Falcon Scott wrote the final diary entry of his ill-fated quest to reach
the South Pole. That same day, more than 350 kilometers away, naval surgeon and
zoologist George Murray Levick was hunkered down within a snowbank at Cape
Adare, observing Adélie penguins.

Levick had accompanied Scott to
Antarctica, but was not one of the five expedition members on the final trek to
the pole. The return journey claimed the lives of all five. Levick survived the
expedition, however, and in 1914, published a manuscript summarizing his
observations — the first scientific descriptions of Antarctic penguins.

But he left something out.

During his months observing Adélie
penguins, which included an entire breeding cycle, Levick witnessed the birds
engaging in same-sex mating rituals. He also saw the birds engage in a variety
of other sexual behaviors that in humans we might call promiscuity, infidelity,
even prostitution. Levick recorded these scandalous details in a second
manuscript, “The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin,” in 1915. But the
manuscript was stamped “Not for Publication” and remained unpublished for
nearly a century.

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In 2012, the manuscript resurfaced in a
scientific journal. Penguin biologist and author Lloyd Spencer Davis, who had
thought he was the first to record same-sex behavior in Antarctic penguins in
1996, was dismayed and intrigued. So Davis embarked on a personal quest to
understand how and why Levick’s observations had been buried in the first place
— seemingly by his own wishes.

The result of that quest is Davis’ book
A Polar Affair, an entertaining, chatty and sometimes salacious romp
through polar exploration history, penguin biology and Victorian mores.

Each of the book’s five sections opens
with a brief essay — Homosexuality, Divorce, Infidelity, Rape, Prostitution — that
highlights how tempting it can be, whether in Victorian or modern times, to
view penguin sexual behaviors through an anthropomorphic lens.

But the driving force of A Polar
isn’t really to understand these sexual behaviors, Davis writes.
Instead, what he really wants to understand is “why Murray Levick would
discover the dirty side of penguins and then try to cover it up.”

George Murray Levick
Naval surgeon George Murray Levick was ship zoologist on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910–1912 expedition to Antarctica. While Scott raced Roald Amundsen to the South Pole, Levick (shown here aboard Scott’s ship Terra Nova in 1910) stayed near the coast to make the first scientific observations of Antarctic penguins.The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Davis delves into Levick’s personal
history, hunting down his field notes and retracing his long, frostbitten
months studying Cape Adare’s penguin colony.

Davis’ investigations are interspersed
with a sweeping history of polar exploration that is by turns fascinating and
frustrating. He also includes stories from his own penguin studies. The
narrative meanders through the exploits of a wide-ranging cast of explorers who
have since lent their names to bits of Antarctica’s geography, from James Clark
Ross to Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen.

Early expeditions led to key
innovations to manage challenges such as the bitter cold and ever-present
nutrient deprivation. And many of those innovations, we learn, came to bear in
the 1911–1912 race to the South Pole between Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian
Roald Amundsen. (Amundsen got there first, beating Scott by about one month.)
This rich and often intimate history can be riveting stuff. But much of it is
also well-trodden ground, and at times, I found myself flipping ahead, wanting
to get back to Levick and his penguins.

Other digressions, though, particularly
Davis’ discussions of whether there are evolutionary benefits to penguins’ same-sex
mating or nonmonogamous behaviors, are fascinating. Is same-sex mating a case
of mistaken identity, in that male and female penguins are monomorphic, looking
much alike? Is promiscuity among penguins related to the female’s inclination
to build a stronger nest, one that is shored up by stones earned through
offering sex?

These are questions with which Davis and other penguin biologists still wrestle. And A Polar Affair doesn’t come to a tidy answer for why Levick suppressed his most startling findings. But the book’s unique approach to polar exploration history makes for an engaging read. And by the end, Davis does come to terms with his need to understand his predecessor and with his own dismay at being scooped a century ago. The journey in discovery, he suggests, was satisfying. “It doesn’t really matter who was the first to see a bit of male-on-male action in penguins,” he writes, “any more than it probably matters who was first to stand on an arbitrary piece of ice and drive a flagpole into it.”

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