Pop culture tells us that rocks are a key element to romance. We buy shiny rocks to place on our loved one’s fingers, and we throw pebbles at their windows for a late night, forbidden conversation. But we’re not the only species with this earthy obsession.
For the Adelie and Gentoo Penguins of Antarctica, finding and defending the perfect pebble could mean the difference between starting a loving family, and spending the cold winters all alone.
For these penguins, pebbles make the world go round. To you and I, these little rocks may seem pretty common, but when you spend your life in a frozen wasteland they become a rare commodity.
Pebbles are the building blocks for the Adelie Penguins’ nests, and the fire that sparks any successful relationship.
These penguins can go to any lengths to obtain the smoothest, prettiest stone; whether it be stealing, engaging in intense battle, or even offering sexual favors.
What’s so romantic about these pebbles? Does a rock lead to a monogamous relationship? Or do they lead to more devious things like penguin prostitution?
Imagine you’re out on a first date, but instead of having flowers, a fancy meal, witty jokes, or a new outfit as your tools to impress, all you have is a pebble. Welcome to the world of the Adelie and Gentoo Penguins.
In this ice cold world, pebbles are so important because they’re used to construct nests. The small stones help keep the penguins’ eggs above the surface, in case of flooding caused by rain or melting snow.
During the “wooing” period, male penguins are said to search through heaps of pebbles to find the perfect one for his potential mate. If two penguins have their eye on the same pebble, they aren’t afraid to settle things by throwing a few flippers.
Some penguins are really lousy at finding nice pebbles on their own. Those are the penguins that stoop to a life of thievery to get their prize.
Once the male has found a good enough rock, he heads back to present it to his intended companion. Now here’s where things get a little fuzzy.
For years this was seen as a grand romantic gesture, similar to human proposals. The female would inspect the pebble, and if it was good enough, she’d add it to her nest, symbolizing the couple’s ‘first waddle’ towards becoming mommy and daddy birds.
But recently Penguin experts have decided that this ritual may not be as glamorous as we thought. They say that stones and pebbles are about as romantic as presenting your loved one with bricks or logs.
That’s not to say that the pebble isn’t an important part of courtship, but only that it acts as more of a practical gift. A male who brings no rocks at all wouldn’t stand a chance, but any rock would probably suffice.
Whether you believe the romanticism or not, there does seem to be a bonding aspect to the pebble presentation. Once the female has chosen her mate, the pair engages in a ritual where they bow, shake, and call to each other. This helps the birds to get to know each other’s calls so they can always find each other.
Male Adelies help raise their babies, as both sexes take turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm and safe from predators.
These breeds tend to mate with the same partner every year, but it’s not always happily ever after. If a mate doesn’t return from migration, they’re not afraid to move on and find another. In fact, some penguins will even have 2 or 3 partners in a year.
Some female penguins will even seek out sexual partners just to get pebbles, in a strange form of prostitution. When they’re short on rocks, the females will sneak away from their partners and start entertaining other single males. They engage in the whole courtship and mating rituals, but then run off back home once they’ve received their desired pebble.
While there may be some similarities between our mating rituals and the penguins’, it’s clear that there is still a lot to learn about these waddly creatures. For us, love is a complicated dance we’ll always be trying to learn, but for the Adelie penguins it’s just a stone’s throw away.