They skipped over this fact in “Happy Feet,” but here’s the truth: Some penguins are full-blown sexual psychopaths who engage in prostitution, pedophilia and even necrophilia.
This is one of the many disturbing realities revealed in “The Truth About Animals” (Basic Books) by zoologist and documentary filmmaker Lucy Cooke.
Many findings are cute: Moose get boozed up on fermented fruits; hippos make their own SPF lotion. Others less so — bats engage in oral sex; eels are cannibals; and then there are those pervy penguins.
It’s safe to say you’ll never look at many beasts the same way after reading Cooke’s entertaining new tome. Here are three creatures who get a thorough reexamination, excerpted from her book.
PENGUINS ARE PROMISCUOUS
Most penguins are far from monogamous. The worst offenders are those “romantic” emperors, with a whopping 85 percent switching partners from one year to the next. They do, however, have a reasonable excuse: Since they carry their eggs around on their feet, there is no nesting site and therefore no obvious rendezvous point to meet a mate at the start of each breeding season. They must instead try to locate their previous year’s partner by shuffling around in a massive scrum and yelling.
Monogamy, when it does occur, can be a rainbow-colored affair. Same-sex penguin partnerships have been particularly well documented in zoos, with some couples becoming famous for flying the rainbow flag. Dotty and Zee, two males at the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany, recently celebrated their 10th anniversary together and have even adopted a chick together.
Penguin divorce rates do tend to lower as you travel north from Antarctica, where warmer weather allows for a more flexible breeding season. This makes the penguin’s mission to procreate less pressurized, so they can spend more time seeking out last year’s partner. Galapagos penguins, which live as far north as the equator, are the most faithful, with 93 percent of pairs reuniting each season. Even penguins that appear to stay together may not be as faithful as they seem. Nearly a third of female Humboldt penguins cheat on their partners, often with members of the same sex.
And then there are the Adélie penguins, one of the only animals on the planet to have turned to prostitution.
Adélies are your classic, knee-high cartoon penguin. They are the southernmost breeding of any bird and gather in vast crowds at the start of each summer to nest along the edges of the Antarctic Peninsula. Towards the end of the season, as the weather warms, there is a danger of the penguins’ simple stone nests becoming flooded and drowning their eggs in meltwater, so the females go on the hunt for fresh pebbles to shore up their parental investment.
Some sneaky females have learned to avoid getting beaten up by possessive pebble owners by targeting the nests of unsuccessful males living at the edge of the colony. With no parental duties, these singletons are free to go on a pebble-hunting extravaganza and amass veritable stone castles. They are also extremely desperate to spread their seed. The sly female shuffles up to one of these lonely males with a deep bow and a coquettish sideways glance, as if she wants to copulate. The male bows back and steps aside to allow the female to lie down on his pebble castle and prepare to procreate. The sex is a swift affair, with the inexperienced male frequently misfiring and missing his target. After the deed is done, the female toddles back to her nest with a pilfered pebble in her beak.
Researcher Dr. Lloyd Spencer Davis noticed that some cunning females stole stones from the males without even offering sex in return. They flirted but skipped the sex part and simply made off with a stone. One particularly effective hustler was recorded swiping 62 stones within an hour.
The behavior of the male Adélie is, however, even worse: sex with dead penguins.
Not even fresh ones at that, but frozen relics from the previous mating season. The lurid details of this avian orgy were delivered with deadpan Edwardian horror by Dr. George Murray Levick, who studied penguins in the Antarctic for twelve weeks in 1911-1912.
They were “gangs of hooligan cocks” whose “constant acts of depravity” run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behavior to gang rape, necrophilia and pedophilia. One section described a male penguin “engaged in sodomy” upon one of its own species. Levick wrote: “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins.”
SLOTHS ARE MASTERS OF ILLUSION
I am frequently asked to explain how such an apparently flawed creature could have survived the rigors of natural selection, which ruthlessly weeds out the weak. This is when I gather my poise and explain that sloths are not a defective remnant.
As a group, sloths have haunted the planet in one shape or another for around 64 million years, managing to outlive both the saber-toothed tiger and the woolly mammoth with its stratagem of stealthy living. Of the half-dozen species alive today, only two are considered endangered. That’s pretty good for a lazy loser.
I’ve spent many hours watching sloths and can confirm they are mesmerizingly slow, moving as if they are in glue. Their average cruising speed is a leisurely 0.19 miles per hour, which is unlikely to challenge even a tortoise. They are physically incapable of going faster than their top speed of .93 miles per hour, since their muscles are engineered to be sluggish — up to 15 times slower than those of an equivalent-sized mammal.
Sloths are the world’s only inverted quadrupeds. They have evolved to hook on and hang from trees as the animal incarnate of a hairy hammock. As a result, they have almost dispensed with the need for weight-bearing extensor muscles, like our triceps, which stiffen and protract the limbs. Instead they manage almost exclusively with retractor muscles, like our biceps, that pull them along branches. This unusual arrangement demands about half the muscle mass needed to prop up an upright existence and means sloths can hang out for long periods while expending hardly any energy. It also affords them surprising strength and agility. They can clasp a vertical trunk with only their hind limbs. They can also lean over backwards 90 degrees with freed forelimbs.
Sloth bodies have an assortment of nifty modifications to enable their energy-saving, inverted existence. Their blood vessels and throat are uniquely adjusted to swallow food and circulate blood against the force of gravity. Their fur grows in the opposite direction to the norm, with a parting down the middle of their tummy so rain can run off easily. They even have sticky bits on their ribs to keep their stomach, which can hold up to a third of a sloth’s body weight in slowly digested leaves, from crushing their lungs.
So how does a virtually immobile, somnolent bag of fermenting leaves avoid getting itself eaten? The sloth’s main predator is the harpy eagle, one of the world’s biggest and fastest raptors, with talons the size of grizzly bear claws. It can fly at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.
The sloth doesn’t seem like much of a match for this predator. Running from danger is clearly not an option.
But the sloth, you see, is a master of illusion, capable of disappearing into the rain forest. Special grooves in the fur collect water and act as hydroponic gardens for 80 different species of algae and fungi, giving the sloth a greenish hue. It also supports a wealth of insects.
Crawling with bugs and looking as if they have been dragged through a hedge backwards isn’t going to win the sloth any beauty contests, but it means they look and smell exactly like a tree. And most of the time they are as motionless as one too. Their arboreal ballet is silent and slow, [slipping] under the radar of the monstrous harpy as it swoops above the canopy, scanning for prey.
HYENA ARE GENDER BENDERS
Hyenas are considered nature’s thugs — condemned throughout history and across cultures and continents as dim-witted cowards, skulking in the back alleys of the animal kingdom, waiting for an opportunity to mug other, more noble, animals of their dinner.
But the spotted hyena are unlike all other mammals in that the females are significantly bigger than the males and much more aggressive. [You could] think of them as pioneering feminists, strutting around the savannah with counterfeit cocks, beating up on submissive males and taking control of their sexual destinies.
Every hyena clan is a matriarchy ruled by an alpha female. In the clan’s strict power structure, dominance passes down the alpha female’s line to her cubs. Adult males rank last in the hierarchy, reduced to submissive outcasts begging for acceptance, food and sex. At a communal carcass, where 30 or so hyenas might be vying for their pound of flesh, adult males eat last — if there’s anything left — or risk violent retribution from the sisterhood.
“You do not want to be a male spotted hyena,” Kay Holekamp, a professor of evolutionary biology and behavior at Michigan State University, told me.
The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening. Instead, she must urinate, copulate and give birth through her strange, multi-tasking pseudo-penis. This last eye-watering feat is like squeezing a cantaloupe out of a hosepipe, and one in 10 first-time hyena mothers die in the process. The fate of their cubs is even more precarious, since the umbilical cord is too short to navigate a birth canal that’s not only twice the length of a similar-sized mammal’s but includes a cheeky hairpin turn halfway down. Up to 60 percent of cubs suffocate on their way out.
Holekamp’s educated guess — and it is still a guess — is that the female’s gender-bending is a result of the age-old war between the sexes.
Unlike most animals, where the males duke it out and the winner gets the girl, in spotted-hyena clans the females dictate the who, where and when of copulation. Sex is an undignified affair that sees the male forced to squat at the female’s rear, stabbing away blindly in an attempt to insert his erect actual penis into her floppy, half-foot pseudo-penis. It’s a bit like the male’s trying to have sex with a sock — a pretty tricky exercise that’s completely impossible without the female’s full cooperation.
The female hyena’s pseudo-penis may be acting as an “anti-rape” device, allowing her to exercise choice over whom she mates with.
This is pretty handy because, in addition to the dangers lurking in her precarious birth canal, a spotted hyena suffers a few other reproductive challenges. Her ovaries have comparatively little follicular tissue and produce relatively few eggs, and so it pays for her to be picky.
You’d never imagine this was the strategy from observing her behavior, since female spotted hyenas are highly promiscuous. Holekamp reckons the pseudo-penis allows the female to choose not just whom she mates with but, more impressively, who actually fertilizes her precious eggs by acting as a form of built-in birth control. That strangely elongated reproductive tract, with its various twists and turns, slows down sperm as they swim towards their goal. If the hyena changes her mind about a male after mating, she simply flushes out his semen by urinating.
Adapted excerpt from “The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife” by Lucy Cooke. Copyright © 2018. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.