20 March 2017
I heard this amazing fact the other day. It's one of those stories about the natural world that just blows you away - that not only jolts you out of your everyday world, but almost makes you question everything you know about nature.
It involves the male Gentoo penguin, which lives on the Antarctic Peninsula and a number of sub-Antarctic islands. During the mating season, the female sits on her nest while the male sifts through piles of pebbles looking for the best he can find. Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't just a gentle stroll along the beach, looking for an attractive stone. This is a mission, and can take them days of scouring, above and below the sea, till they find what they see as the ultimate treasure. Once a pebble has been selected, the male penguin presents it as a love token to the chosen female and, if she takes the pebble and places it on her nest, then she has accepted that penguin to bond and mate for life.
But fear of rejection is not the only concern that the males have. Other males in the group often suffer from ‘pebble envy’ and will attempt to steal the best looking pebbles from other nests to take to their own female. Suffice to say, there is plenty of pebble rage going on.
So, I think the connection between this pattern of behaviour and that of our own human tradition, of finding the right engagement ring, is pretty obvious. But when did it begin for us? It seems the relatively modern custom may speak to a very primitive urge, to search for the shiniest, most beautiful thing that we could find, to present to the most desirable mate.
My ultimate take on this tale, though, is that I now see us as your personal penguins! We can look for that perfect stone for you to give to your loved one - because we can understand what you want, of course we know what we are looking for, and also, we know the best beaches to find it on!