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I came across the following unsourced claim:


When a male penguin falls in love with a female penguin, he searches the entire beach to find the perfect pebble to present to her. And when he finally finds it, he waddles over to her and places the pebble right in front of her. Kind of like a proposal.

Is this true?

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In addition to the two answers below, I should point out that penguins don't search for perfect pebbles - they grab any pebble, steal pebbles from other nests, even from burrows of other animals. Not romantic in any way :-) –  Rory Alsop Nov 1 '12 at 10:06
This is genius - talk about taking advantage of the "aaah" factor: penguinstones.com/index.html –  Jamiec Nov 1 '12 at 10:15
I watched a BBC nature documentary recently (of course it was David Attenborough narrating it!) in which they filmed penguins doing exactly this. –  Polynomial Dec 4 '12 at 14:05
Almost word for word, this is a line from Good Luck Chuck. Source Identified: See the scene on Youtube –  bitfed Mar 8 at 23:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

A quick search on Google brings up lots of pages like "The Penguins FAQ" stating it is just a myth:

I heard that when Adelie penguins are choosing a mate the male searches for the perfect pebble and presents it to the one he wants as his mate. It's a myth based on the fact that Adelie penguins build nests out of pebbles. And they build the nest while they do the courting, so it's actually partly true. I guess a penguin who doesn't bring any pebble wouldn't stand a chance, but any pebble will do and both mates bring them in!


I could not find any specific peer reviewed study on this, aside from a couple of papers showing that (very unsurprisingly) hormonal levels play an important role in courtship and nest leaving in Adélie penguins.

Sex steroid and corticosterone levels of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) during courtship and incubation. - Gen Comp Endocrinol., 1999

Should I stay or should I go? Hormonal control of nest abandonment in a long-lived bird, the Adélie penguin. - Horm Behav., 2010

Seaword.org gives a few clues (with refs) about courtship

a. Courtship varies among the species. It generally begins with both visual and auditory displays. In many species, males display first to establish a nest site and then to attract a mate.

b. Most penguin species are monogamous (one male breeds with one female during a mating season) (del Hoyo, et al., 1992); however, research has shown that some females may have one to three partners in one season and some males may have one or two partners (Davis and Speirs, 1990).

c. Mate selection is up to the female, and it is the females that compete for the males (Davis and Speirs, 1990).

d. A female usually selects the same male from the preceding season (Sparks and Soper, 1987). Adélie penguins have been documented re-pairing with the previous year's mate 62% of the time. Chinstraps re-paired in 82% of possible cases, and gentoos re-paired 90% of the time (Trivelpiece, 1990). In one study of Adélies, females paired with males within minutes of arriving at the colony (Davis and Speirs, 1990).

e. When a female selects a different mate it is usually because her mate from the previous season fails to return to the nesting area. Another reason may be mistiming in returning to the nesting area. If they arrive at different times and miss each other, one or the other penguin may obtain a new mate (Davis and Speirs, 1990).

Again, the idea that the male builds a pebble nest first and then starts the courtship fits in very well and Occam's razor would favour this one rather than some forced antropomorphisation of penguins.

According to the same page:

One medium-sized gentoo nest was composed of 1,700 pebbles and 70 molled tail feathers (del Hoyo, et al., 1992).

So, it seems the male would have to go on and on bugging the female a couple of thousand times to show her yet another pebble he collected... This seems unrealistic and this behaviour seems not to have been reported.

We can conclude that, lacking further scientific proof, this is just another myth.

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for that one specific species, maybe. But you make the exact same mistake the person writing the original claim does, and that is assuming all penguins are the same. –  jwenting Nov 1 '12 at 13:06
@jwenting: I could not find any proof whatsoever that any penguin displays that particular behaviour. It is extremely unlikely that any species of birds would "search for the perfect pebble", first because it is not really specified what a perfect pebble would be, and second because that it is a clear antropomorphisation of an animal. Pebbles are used by several species of penguins to build their nest and that's about it [cont'd] –  nico Nov 1 '12 at 16:10
[cont'd] Obviously, we cannot be 100% sure of the answer, as there is no study on that (which is very telling...), but we also cannot be sure that penguins do not look for, say, the perfect fish to bring to their mate. Already the fact that the claim says that the penguin "falls in love" rises an enormous red flag in my head. Finally, note that the seaword.org page talks generally about penguins, not specifically about the Adélie. –  nico Nov 1 '12 at 16:11
true, but briar birds do pretty much exactly that, build a structure in which they proudly display "nice and shiny things" for the female, ranging from stones to bottle tops and pieces of string. –  jwenting Nov 2 '12 at 5:37
@jwenting I'd have spelt that "bower bird", but wikipedia likes bowerbird. In any case, it was the example I was going to bring up, and I will say that the females judge them on some basis that is not as simple as size of number of decorations. It is not unusual to hear people describe it as being an esthetic judgement, though I am unsure how one would prove that. –  dmckee Mar 9 '13 at 16:03

Its funny how we anthropomorphise almost all animal behaviour that we find even slightly similar to our own.

However in this case it's more akin to you bringing home a brick to your girlfriend for building your house, than scouting the local jewelery stores for a dimond ring perfect for her.

Gentoo penguins are less likely to stick together than other penguins and can be found in small groups, sometimes with other species. Although they are not strongly attached to the same nest site (they have plenty of choice of sites) their pair-bonding is strong, and they usually mate with the same partner as the previous year. They nest on low hilltops or open beaches. When available, they make a nest with pebbles and other objects, and sometimes use a scrape in the ground - but all nests are fiercely defended


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According to the Edinburg Zoo they Genntoo penguins do: http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/news-and-events/news/articles/news_0089.html

Pebbles are very important to penguins as you'll see here:

As you'll see there penguins do give female penguins pebbles, but not as a token of affection nor because they are shinny. Pebbles are gathered to form a proper nest.

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Welcome to Skeptics! This isn't a full referenced answer, but more of a clarification. When you get enough reputation, you will be able to comment rather than answer. Please expand this into a definitive answer. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Nov 1 '12 at 15:24

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