Adélie penguins are such adorable and fascinating creatures. They survive in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, they gather by millions, and they swim around the open ocean to prey on incredible quantities of food daily. But one aspect of these birds that is particularly intriguing is their sex life. To some extent, they remind us of our own sexuality, with all its complexity and diverse behaviors.
If you are curious to know more about this unusual aspect of the life of Adélie penguins, keep reading!
The Sex Life of Adélie Penguins: A Shock For Early Explorers
Adélie penguins show a whole range of intriguing and…. unconventional sexual behaviors. You might have already read about it in several articles online like on the NY Post, BBC, EvolutionIsTrue, or The Guardian.
Some of these behaviors were first observed by Dr. George Murray Levick, a zoologist, and member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica in 1910-1913. Levick’s observations were considered too shocking for the public at the time, and his findings were only published in a limited-circulation report.
Among the sexual behaviors observed in Adélie penguins are instances of necrophilia, where males attempt to copulate with the corpses of dead females. Additionally, some male penguins engage in coercive mating, where they force themselves upon females, occasionally leading to physical injuries for both parties involved.
Other observed behaviors include instances of homosexual activities, such as male penguins forming same-sex pairs or engaging in same-sex mating rituals. These behaviors have been explained as a means of practice for young penguins, as they learn the complexities of mating rituals and prepare for future encounters with females. It is also thought that males engage in all those disturbing behavior out of despair to mate and spread their genes.
Heterosexual mating, homosexual mating, rape, necrophilia… many human sexuality aspects, both normal or considered deviant, seem to be present in Adélie penguins. Before you get disgusted and categorize these animals as horrible perverts, it is essential to understand that these behaviors are a natural part of Adélie penguins’ biology. Even if they seem deviant or unusual.
Adélie Penguins’ Courtship and Pebble Ritual
Adélie penguins exhibit a unique and really fascinating courtship ritual involving pebbles, which are an essential construction material for building their nests during the breeding season. The process begins when the penguins return to their coastal breeding grounds for the summer, on the Antarctic continent, where they form large colonies.
The male Adélie penguin takes the initiative. It will find a suitable nesting site, and then collect pebbles to construct the nest. These pebbles serve as the foundation of the nest and also help to protect the eggs from meltwater during the warmer months. Pebbles are highly prized among Adélie penguins, and males often engage in fierce competition to gather the best ones.
Once the male has built the nest, he starts the courtship process by displaying his pebble collection to attract a female. He may present a pebble to the female as a gift, and if she accepts it, this signifies the beginning of their partnership. The female will add the pebble to the nest, and the pair will continue to gather more pebbles together, strengthening their bond.
During the courtship process, the Adélie penguins engage in various displays and rituals, such as mutual preening, vocalizations, and body postures like deep bows and head swaying. These behaviors help to reinforce their bond and ensure the success of their partnership for the breeding season.
Once the pair has successfully mated and the female lays her eggs, both parents take turns incubating the eggs and foraging for food. They also make sure to protect the eggs and the chicks from predators (mainly seabirds). The pebble nest remains essential throughout this process, as it provides a safe and stable environment for the developing chicks.
How Female Adélie Penguins Flirt With Males for More Stones
Female Adélie penguins have been observed engaging in a form of resource exchange behavior that resembles prostitution, primarily to gather stones for their nests. As the Antarctic summer progresses, ice and snow continually melt. This causes an increased risk of nest flooding. Female Adélies will then seek additional pebbles to protect their eggs from meltwater. Some clever females have devised a strategy to acquire these valuable resources without facing aggression from other penguins.
Targeting the nests of single males at the edge of the colony, these females approach with a bow and a flirtatious glance, indicating a willingness to mate. The lonely males, eager to reproduce, respond by allowing the female access to their pebble hoard. After a brief mating attempt, the female returns to her nest carrying a stolen pebble. This deceptive behavior allows the female to collect stones for her nest while minimizing the risk of conflict.
Researcher Dr. Lloyd Spencer Davis observed that some particularly resourceful females even managed to steal pebbles without engaging in the mating act. They would employ the same flirtatious behavior but would skip the mating process altogether, taking the stones and leaving the unsuspecting male behind. One such skilled female was reported to have stolen 62 stones in just an hour.