Why Are Penguins’ Sex Lives So Scandalous? | Atlas Obscura

Why Are Penguins’ Sex Lives So Scandalous? | Atlas Obscura

This past fall, a popular TV channel aired a very brief, very controversial documentary. It was debauched and violent, packing a betrayal, a screaming match, and a bloody fight into fewer than three minutes. Outlets including Entertainment Weekly and USA Today covered the clip and the fervent social media response, calling it “shocking” and “disturbing.” “This is why I don’t want to be in a relationship,” one viewer Tweeted.

This contentious clip wasn’t on A&E or Fox News. It was a National Geographic wildlife documentary called “Homewrecking Penguin,” about three Magellanic penguins caught in a love triangle. When the first penguin returns from fishing, he’s confronted by his mate and her new boyfriend, who has moved into his nest. The two males scream and beat each other up—one even loses an eye—and after watching them battle for her affections, the female eventually chooses her new paramour, leaving her original mate out in the cold.

As Twitter user Javi Moreno said, “he should of just skipped the bullsh*t and taken her to Maury.”

This clip’s massive popularity and outsized response—according to Nat Geo News, hundreds of thousands of people watched it the day it was released—rides on the apparent ridiculousness of the pairing: all this blood-soaked drama from penguins? But if you look back at the history of human-penguin relations, this clip isn’t really an anomaly. Over and over, through centuries of shifting scientific standards and evolving social mores, humans have been scandalized by penguins.

A fight breaks out when a husband comes home and finds his wife with another penguin. pic.twitter.com/9ejYGcJ5TJ

— Nat Geo Channel (@NatGeoChannel) November 4, 2016

As far as we know, the first person to be shocked by penguin depravity was a surgeon named George Murray Levick. Part of an early British expedition to Antarctica, Levick spent much of his free time observing the large colonies of Adélie penguins that live on Cape Adare, and he later published several family-friendly descriptions of the species’ lifestyle, habits, and characteristics.

“When seen for the first time, the Adélie penguin gives you the impression of a very smart little man in an evening dress suit,” begins one chapter of the very pleasant Antarctic Penguins, published in 1914. “His carriage is confident as he approaches you over the snow, curiosity in his every movement.”

But eventually, Levick’s experience took a darker turn. The Cape Adare penguins, being animals, treat sex differently than most humans do, and Levick was sufficiently outraged by some of their predilections that he sometimes abandoned the pretense of scientific objectivity. “Cocks were often seen whose passions seemed to have passed beyond their control,” he wrote in an early journal entry.

He began referring to these unattached males as “hooligans,” and described their activities—mating with injured females, with dead penguins, with each other, and occasionally with the snow itself—with breathless fury. “I saw another act of astonishing depravity today,” he wrote on December 6th, 1911, after witnessing a group sex act. “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.”

Levick was disturbed enough by what he saw that he did his darndest to make sure his accounts of it would never fall into innocent hands. When he remembered, he switched into the Greek alphabet to write about penguin sex, in order to assure that people without a university education—in other words, the innocent—couldn’t read the offending sections. When he forgot, he went back and rewrote his original observations, pasting the coded Greek version over the original in his notebook.

Levick did try to publish the fruits of these notes as part of a longer paper, but his editors cut all the graphic parts out. (They did keep some copies for their own use, though.) It took until 2012 for ornithologists at London’s Natural History Museum to finally dig up Levick’s “Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin”—by which point scientific inquiry had matured enough that they were able to publish it.

In the meantime, humans were busy making a huge deal out of entirely different penguins. In the mid-2000s, the scandal spotlight landed on Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo. When the two first started hanging out in 1998, they were merely one of the world’s many same-sex penguin couples. They eschewed female companionship, and spent their days entwining their necks and singing to each other.

After zookeepers observed them pretending a round rock was an egg, they gave them a real one, and the two raised up a baby female named Tango. When they eventually broke it off, in 2004, it shouldn’t really have made ripples outside their immediate circles.

But thanks to their location (New York City, a gossip hotbed) and their timing (right in the thick of contemporary gay rights activism) it caused an nationwide incident instead. The breakup “rocked the gay scene,” wrote Andrew Sullivan in the Times of London. Conservative groups—who had, just months before, extolled March of the Penguins for its celebration of traditional family values—jumped in to slander the ex-couple, going so far as to use Silo’s new partner—a female—to delegitimize his old relationship. According to the American Library Association, And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about Roy, Silo, and their baby, was the fourth most controversial book of the 2000s.

Remember the gay penguins, they are very important. pic.twitter.com/8yug00ID8T

— nic (@JustAFanMore) March 10, 2017

To this day, same-sex penguin couples—both their existence and their occasional separation, for breeding purposes—continue to rile up people across the globe. Although many scientists are scandalized by the scandals, others understand where our hysteria comes from. “We tend to identify with penguins because they walk upright and are social,” writes Dr. P. Dee Boersma, a penguin expert at the University of Washington, in an email. She also points out that many do act like humans in other ways too—many do pair off and stay faithful, sometimes for many years.

In the end, it’s probably these similarities that make us so prone to judging these penguins. If these animals—which look like us, but cuter—are capable of cheating, or of attempting to raise stone eggs, or to mate with the snow, what might be lurking just beneath our socialized veneer? As Twitter user BeautifulChaine put it, after watching that National Geogaraphic video, “I never knew I could relate to one until now.”

[Still want to show your kids the cute penguins?]


French Illustrator Whose Comics “Inspired” Star Wars Finally Getting the Movie Treatment – Core77

French Illustrator Whose Comics “Inspired” Star Wars Finally Getting the Movie Treatment – Core77

Several years ago, we discovered what some had known for decades: That George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy had borrowed, rather liberally and without giving credit, from a French comic series called Valérian and Laureline. Talented illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières and writer Pierre Christin had produced the wildly popular sci-fi comic starting in the 1960s. Here are some of the most egregious examples of shots and concepts that sprang from Mézières’ pen and wound up, uncredited, in George Lucas’ films:

Mézières was reportedly incensed at the time of the original trilogy’s release.  But now Mézières and Christin, both 78 years old, have had some fantastic news: Valérian has finally been made into a live-action movie directed by fan Luc Besson! (Besson had previously used Mézières concept work for The Fifth Element.)

Here’s the trailer, which looks pretty fantastic:

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will be released this summer.

In other Star Wars “borrowing” news, here’s a side-by-side look at the first movie’s climax and The Dam Busters, a 1955 British movie depicting a real-life World War II mission to destroy a German dam:




For the British, the American Revolution quickly became a naval war with France over possession of the islands of the Caribbean. With their vast sugar plantations, these were more lucrative to Britain than the American colonies and more likely to remain colonies over the long run. Furthermore, the French had lost key Caribbean possessions to Britain during the recent French and Indian War that had ended in 1763, and viewed the American Revolution as their opportunity to regain them:

“Why this obsession [of the British] with the West Indies? [Lord] Sandwich had predicted that the war aims of France would be to overturn the peace of 1763 and regain her empire and her markets; and that for the sake of the American alliance she would forget her claim to Canada, and look for her reward in the sub-tropics — in India, West Africa and the Caribbean. And he was right. The French navy was to neglect America for the West Indies. There most of the naval fighting took place; and there in 1782 the greatest British victory of the war was won by [Admiral George] Rodney. With the fate of North America in the balance, the maritime Powers of Europe threw their strength and hopes into a chain of small, fever-ridden islands in the Caribbean. ‘The war’, wrote one of Prime Minister Shelburne’s correspondents in the year of Rodney’s victory, ‘has and ever must be determined in the West Indies.’

“A powerful and noisy pressure group represented the West India interest in London. In 1775 the Society of West India Merchants and the Agents for the Planters had joined forces to represent the West India interest as a whole; and they were to exercise some influence over the government’s strategy. But their clamor was not the main reason for the Ministry’s interest in the islands.’ The real issue was concerned with national policy. In the long run England might or might not recover America; but whatever the course of the war in the Caribbean, the Antilles could not sustain an independent existence and would remain colonies of one Power or another. The wealth they produced from sugar and its by-products was still vast. It is said that the West Indies accounted for a third of the overseas trade of France. Much of the British trade passed through Bristol; but into London alone the British islands sent nearly 300 ships in an average year, with a 100,000 hogsheads of sugar and 11,000 puncheons of rum. The West India imports in 1776 had been valued at £4 1/4 millions, compared with the East India Company’s £1 1/2 millions. And for a mercantilist the sub-tropical products of the West Indies fitted much better into the British economy than the products of American farms and fisheries, which were not needed and were generally excluded from the home market. The planters’ produce was needed, and favoured the balance of trade by saving England from the need to buy from foreign rivals. As a market for English manufactures the planters were also more satisfactory than the Americans: with their sugar profits they could at least pay their debts. The sensible Sir Charles Middleton believed passionately in the islands’ importance. ‘The sugar islands’, he wrote, ‘are the best and surest markets for our staple commodities, and the most productive of all our colonies. They are the easiest source of our revenues.’

“There was thus a general belief that the British economy and finances depended on the West Indies. And conversely it could be argued that nothing but their West India commerce had enabled the French to equip the fleet which successfully confronted [Admiral Augustus] Keppel in the course of 1778; and that the conquest of the French islands would ruin the enemy’s finances. And by conquering them all it was argued that England would obtain an economic grip on the American colonies. … For England, the islands held the lure of compensation for her losses in America, finance to pay for the war, a favourable balance of trade, an economic lever to coerce America. For the chance of conquering the French West Indies and ‘avenging the faithless and insolent conduct of France’, the King had said he was willing even to come to terms with America.”


Only in America Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum | Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Only in America Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum | Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

An altered photograph of a roadside motel is printed on a cardboard sleeve for R.E.M.’s 7-inch single “Only in America,” designed by Bruce and Karen Licher. The image of the motel is grainy, which complements the speckled cardboard on which it was printed. Although the grain makes it harder to read the motel sign, the motel itself is well-known. In fact, Roy’s Motel & Café is actually a United States National Historic Landmark. In this lithograph, only two colors of ink are used. The simple two-tone combination of a blue graphic with brown text creates a palette that is plain and subdued, mirroring the barren landscape of the Mojave Desert where the original photo was taken.

Although the R.E.M. release depicts a name change from “Roy’s” to “Bob’s,” the architecture is unmistakable. First opened in 1938, it was not until 1959 that Roy’s Motel acquired its immediately recognizable sign and its inclined roof above the reception office. Together these features have made Roy’s Motel a prime example of mid-century modern Googie architecture. Googie is a post-WWII architectural form known for embracing the Space Age with sharp angles and colorful neon signs. Googie architects turned to jets and cars as a source of influence. Roy’s Motel is noteworthy not only for its architecture, but also for its location in Amboy, California along the original Route 66 Highway. In its heyday, Route 66 was sometimes called “the Main Street of America,” so the fact that Bruce and Karen Licher chose this image to accompany R.E.M.’s song “Only in America” is deliberate. In the song, lead vocalist Michael Stipe sings “only in America can a guy from anywhere go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire.” On paper the line might seem sincere, but when one hears Stipe deliver the line with no enthusiasm, it makes the song sound more like a critical commentary on the American dream. When California’s I-40 highway opened in 1972, businesses along the original Route 66 were completely bypassed, and in 1985, Route 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System. More than a decade later, in 1996, Bruce and Karen Licher created this design with the nostalgic motel image. The decision to accompany the capital lettered text ONLY IN AMERICA with a gritty, faded image of a forgotten motel and gas station is funny and it carries the same ironic tone of the song.

There is both musical and visual continuity between both sides of the single. On the back cover, the colors of the front are essentially inverted. The cover features a blue photo with brown text while the back features a brown photo and green text. Side B of the single is an acoustic recording of Michael Stipe singing Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive.” About a minute into the recording, Stipe forgets the words and says “that’s all the words I know.” Stipe’s mistake-laden recording of “I Will Survive” on Side B can be thought of as an answer to the questions posed on Side A in “Only in America.” In the same way that Stipe intended to draw connections between both songs, the Licher design creates a visual dialectic between both sides of the cardboard sleeve. Not only are colors flipped in terms of graphics and text, but the front cover features an image of human settlement and entrepreneurship while the back features a natural photograph of trees, with the word survive partially superimposed atop the photo.

An emblem on the front cover reads “R.E.M. Holiday Fan Club Single,” as the recording was released in December to members of R.E.M.’s fan club. Fittingly, the folds of the cardboard were glued to the outside of the sleeve, making the record look like an envelope or some kind of mailing parcel. In this way, the physical design of the sleeve reflects the postal nature of many ‘90s music fan clubs.

Only in America

The Science Behind Hating Hillary’s Voice – The Atlantic – The Atlantic

The Science Behind Hating Hillary’s Voice – The Atlantic – The Atlantic

Commentators often criticize Hillary Clinton for having a loud, monotone, and shrill voice. In this video, The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan talks to voice experts to understand what makes Clinton’s voice allegedly more annoying than her competitors. The conclusions are complex: Clinton’s voice is actually average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender, but she does yell into microphones and speak in an overly annunciated voice—two factors that may make her seem abrasive. And then, of course, there’s another element at play: sexism.




In the days immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s staff offered Robert E. Lee command of the Union forces. He declined immediately. Within days, he had accepted an appointment in the Confederate Army:

“With his native Virginia still on the fence, [Robert E.] Lee made a slow and sorrowful journey [from his military assignment in Texas back] across the country, wrestling with the hard choices he would face at home. ‘ If Virginia stands by the old Union,’ he told a friend as he prepared to leave Texas, ‘so will I. But if she secedes … then I will still follow my native state with my sword, and if need be with my life.’ He expressed similar sentiments in a letter to his son Rooney: ‘Things look very alarming from this point of view’ he wrote from Texas. ‘I prize the Union very highly & know of no personal sacrifice that I would not make to preserve it,’ he wrote — but then added a portentous caveat: ‘save that of honour.’ At other times, he expressed the unrealistic notion that, in the event of war, he might quit the Army and sit our the storm at Arlington. ‘I shall resign and go to planting corn,’ he said.

“These conflicting impulses were still stirring in Lee when he arrived home from Texas on March 1, 1861, in time for dinner. ‘Found all well,’ he noted in his diary. Within days he went to see his old commander and mentor, Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, by then general in chief of the U.S. Army. The two sol­diers, friends since serving together in the Mexican War, met privately in Scott’s office for three hours. They must have frankly discussed secession fever, the prospects of war, and the possibility that Lee would take command of U.S. forces in the field. Scott had nothing but admiration for this fellow Virginian, whom he considered ‘the very best soldier I ever saw in the field.’ Yet the de­tails of their crucial meeting were never revealed: neither man spoke about what transpired between them that day.

“By April 18, as Union troops prepared Washington’s defenses and Virginia moved toward secession, Lee was summoned to meet with Scott again. That same day he was invited to sec Francis P. Blair Sr., a close friend and advisor to President Lincoln. Lee met Lincoln’s friend first, calling at the pale yellow townhouse since known as Blair House, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the president’s mansion. Lincoln had apparently authorized Blair to offer Lee command of the Union forces that day. If he accepted, Lee would be head of a powerful army staffed with colleagues he knew from West Point and the Mexican War. He would be promoted to major general. He would be at the pinnacle of his career, with the ample resources of the federal government at his command. If Lee was tempted by this momentous proposal, he did not show it, taking no more than a few seconds to absorb Blair’s offer. Then he declined it.

” ‘Mr. Blair,’ Lee said, ‘I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned four mil­lions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?’ Years later Lee recalled that he had turned down the command ‘as candidly and as courteously as I could’ before leaving Blair House, crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, and climbing the worn stairs to the War Department to keep his appointment with General Scott.

“Seen together, the elderly, rotund general and the elegant, middle-aged colo­nel made for an odd couple indeed. Sitting behind a desk in Washington had swollen the commanding officer’s six-foot-five-inch frame to operatic propor­tions, aggravating the gout that occasionally confined him to a wheelchair. Scabrous and cloudy-eyed, he was nearing the end of his career just as his un­derstudy, at age fifty-four, was reaching his peak. Not yet the familiar graybeard of the war years, the Robert E. Lee of 1861 might have been an advertising poster for military recruiters. He was, said one eager young lieutenant, ‘the handsomest man in the army.’ Powerfully built, Lee carried himself with the easy dignity and soldierly bearing that had earned him perfect marks for de­portment as a West Point cadet. Even three decades later, Lee stood with his back as straight as a door, his hair and moustache thick and dark, his chin clean­ shaven. The picture of ruddy good health, Lee seemed taller than his five-foot­-eleven-inch height. His eyes, a depthless brown that appeared black in some lights, shone with calm intelligence, and a touch of sadness.

“Lee briefed his old friend on Blair’s offer, and on his response to it, which prompted an explosion from General Scott. ‘Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life,’ he growled, then softened his outburst with a postscript: ‘But I feared it would be so.’ ”