Just when you thought penguins were the epitome of innocence, you find out they practice prostitution.
Researchers Fiona Hunter and Lloyd Davis witnessed some unexpected sexual practices during a five year study on the behavior of Adélie penguins on Antarctica’s Ross Island in the late 1990’s. Female Adélie penguins were observed providing sex in exchange for stones, which are used to build nests and protect eggs from rising water. In a penguin’s world, they’re seen as a precious commodity.
Females will flirt with unattached male penguins and initiate a courtship ritual that includes seduction with “head-bowing.” Once the deed is done, the female will remove a stone (or in one case, 62) and return to her nest. The male will allow her to do this multiple times. Sometimes, unlucky males will will lose out completely; the flirty female will remove stones without returning any favors.
Of course, scientists can’t be entirely sure that the act is conducted solely for the sake of stealing stones; other researchers suggest that females are establishing relationships with other males in the event that their current mate dies. Others believe that the females aren’t trying to flirt at all, but the male misinterprets her actions as she bends over to steal a stone. Additional research is needed to come to a solid conclusion.
Adélie penguins are a mid-sized species that thrive on the Antarctic coast. They breed from October to February, generally forming monogamous pairs each season.