The BBC story Pick up a Penguin is an excellent summary of this unique behavior. 

If sensational storytelling is your preference, check out the Tabloid News Service article Antarctic Shocker: Penguin Prostitutes.  The article is actually very accurate.

The web trivia page Penguin Prostitutes features another good summary on this topic.


Any research on this topic must include the original scientific publication.  Check out Female Adelie Penguins Acquire Nest Material from Extrapair Males after Engaging in Extrapair Copulations by F.M. Hunter and L.S. Davis.  The article can be found on pages 526 -528 in the 1998 issue of the The Auk (Volume 115, No. 2).

A three paragraph overview can be found in the People Magazine article Vice on Ice  (April 6, 1998, page 114).






Antarctica's Red-light District.

How would you feel if your mate came home after spending the night with a member of the world's oldest profession?  I think it's safe to say that you probably wouldn't be very happy. 

Well, for the first time it has been observed that the male specimen of Homo sapiens is not the only species to pay for someone else's services. Yes, it has been scientifically determined that the male Adelie penguin, which lives on Ross Island down in the Antarctic, also pays for the special favors of a female. 

I can just picture it now:

The female gets all dolled up and puts on her sexiest skin-tight tuxedo (what else would a penguin wear?).  She then heads out for a night on the town.  A potential male customer is spotted out in the distance.  She sways her hips back and forth and approaches the gentlemen.

“Hey, honey.” she says in her sexiest Mae West-like voice.  “How would you like me to warm your chilled bones?”

The lonely male penguin is attracted to her like steel to a magnet.  They agree to terms and do their thing. 

Now, I know what you are thinking.  (Well, maybe not.)  Penguins don't carry cash and they have never been known to carry an American Express card, so just how do they pay? 

With stones. 

Yes, you read that correctly - stones. Also known as pebbles, cobbles, and rocks.   It makes no difference if the payment is sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic.  All types of Flinstonian currency are accepted. 

Let's get back to reality...

Actually, the Adelie penguins are known to mate for life.  At least that is what the male is led to believe. 

Every so often, the female wanders off in search of stones to build her nest with.  Since there are no trees or grasses to be found in this frozen wasteland, stones make the best nesting material by default. But even stones are difficult to find in this cold climate. Those that do exist are most likely frozen solid in the mud or ice.  The stones are of such great value to the penguins that they will steal them from each other, even though they face a high risk of being attacked by the owner of this hard currency (and this currency certainly is hard).

But wait! 

The female Adelie penguin has figured out a better way.  She exchanges copulations for the stones.  The female slips away from her mate and just happens to wander over to the nest of an unpaired male. 

Hmmm… What could she be thinking?

She goes through the standard courtship procedure.  You know, the usual dip of the head and the coy look from the corner of the eye.  If the male shows some interest, she will just lie prone as an invitation to mate.  Once the mating is over, she picks up her payment (the stone) and heads back home to her unsuspecting mate. 

Believe it or not, this is truly serious science.  A researcher named Fiona M. Hunter of the University of Cambridge has been studying these cheating penguins for years.  (Why anyone would ever want to study in such a cold place is beyond me.  I was once offered a complete scholarship to do my graduate work in Antarctica.  All the money in the world couldn't get me there.  Instead, I decided to stay warm and chose a different college.)

Hunter also observed ten different females who played an even smarter game.  Each of these penguins went through the whole mutual courtship routine, picked up their payment, and just left before any hanky panky ever took place.  Oddly, the males showed no aggressive behavior for being denied their pleasure.  In fact, these same females actually had the nerve to return for more pebbles.  One female managed to get 62 stones from one male in just one hour. (Obviously, she was the Pam Anderson of the bird world.)

And her husband was the last to know…

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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