Emperor Penguins

Majestic Monarchs of the Antarctic Ice

Standing at an impressive 45 inches (115 centimeters) tall, emperor penguins are the largest penguin species, roughly the height of an average six-year-old child. These flightless birds inhabit the Antarctic ice and its surrounding icy waters, enduring one of the planet’s most extreme environments, with wind chills reaching -76°F (-60°C) and blizzards up to 200 km/h (120 mph). Aptly named Aptenodytes or “without-wings-diver,” emperor penguins are renowned for their diving prowess.

Adult emperor penguins with a chick

Adult emperor penguins with a chick

Unique among penguins, emperors breed during the brutal Antarctic winter. Both male and female penguins alternate roles, with one going out to sea to feed while the other tends to reproductive duties. Females lay a single egg and embark on a two-month hunting trip, sometimes traveling up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) to reach open water. Here, they feast on fish, squid, and krill. Emperor penguins are expert divers; they dive up to 1,850 feet (565 meters) and stay submerged for over 20 minutes, outperforming any other bird species.

The spectacular sight of an emperor penguin laying her egg

The spectacular sight of an emperor penguin laying her egg

Their distinctive tuxedo-like appearance serves as camouflage while swimming; their white bellies blend with the light above and dark backs with the depths below. Emperors also engage in porpoising, leaping into the air while swimming, which coats them with micro air bubbles, reducing underwater friction. Scientists speculate this behavior might also be a form of play.

On land, emperor penguins gather in massive colonies, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 members. Breeding starts in late March and early April following their return from sea foraging. Remarkably, about 15% of adults manage to reunite with their previous year’s mate despite the absence of nests and the colony’s immense size.

Not being aggressively territorial, unlike other penguin species, emperor penguins exhibit a unique survival strategy to withstand the harsh Antarctic winds: forming a huddled circle. This huddle, resembling a radar image of a hurricane, gradually shifts downwind during storms, sometimes moving as much as 650 feet (200 meters) over 48 hours.

Emperor penguins huddle for warmth

Emperor penguins huddle for warmth

While females are gone, male emperors play a crucial role in egg incubation. They balance the eggs on their feet and cover them with a feathered brood pouch. This two-month period of egg-warming is a test of endurance; the males do not eat and rely solely on their energy reserves, often losing up to 50% of their body weight.

When female emperor penguins return, they bring a belly full of food, often timing their arrival with the hatching of their chick. If the chick hatches before the female’s return, the male feeds it a nourishing secretion from his oesophagus, akin to penguin “milk.” 

The parents reunite by calling to each other, recognizing their distinct voices. Transferring the chick to the female can be a hesitant process, with the male sometimes needing persuasion. Alone, a chick’s survival time on the ice is perilously short, about two minutes. After the female takes over, regurgitating food for the chick, the male, having fulfilled his role, heads to the sea to feed himself.

An emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica

An emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica

As the chicks grow and gain the ability to regulate their own temperature, they form creches and learn to huddle like adults, especially in worsening weather. By December, with the Antarctic summer setting in and the pack ice breaking, these young emperors are ready to swim and fish independently. They reach breeding maturity at four years and can live up to 20 years.

Emperor penguins fight over mate

Emperor penguins fight over mate

Emperors face predation from killer whales, leopard seals, and giant petrels, with leopard seals being the most formidable, capable of consuming 15 penguins daily. However, healthy penguins often outswim these predators.

Despite their resilience, emperor penguins face significant threats. As of 2009, there were about 238,000 breeding pairs, or roughly 595,000 adult birds, considering non-breeders. However, they are now considered near-threatened, with predictions of rapid population decline. The looming dangers of global warming and overfishing threaten to reduce their breeding grounds and food sources, posing serious threats to their future survival.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” —Leonardo da Vinci

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” —Pablo Neruda

“I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Bibliography

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