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Emperor penguin
There are 17 species of penguins. Only three are indigenous to the Antarctic and one, the Galapagos penguin, is found as far north as the equator. All species generally congregate around cool or cold ocean currents where they find food: krill, squid, small fish and fish fry. Penguins tend to live for a long time, but their juvenile mortality rate is high. Many breed in large colonies and become highly territorial in the breeding season.

Penguin have remained virtually unchanged for the last 45 million years except for their size and a few odd features. One extinct species that lived 42 million years ago was 170 centimeters tall. Another species — the “Icadyptes salasi”, whose fossil remain were found in central Peru and lived 36 million years ago — had a javelin-like beak that was 30 centimeters long, thick neck muscles and stood 150 centimeters tall. Perhaps what was most extraordinary about this creature was that it lived in tropical waters.

Film: “March of the Penguins” won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2005. It is about emperor penguins and was made by the French filmmaker Luc Jacquet.

Expert: P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington conservation biologist, is regarded as the Jane Goodall of penguins. She has worked for over a quarter of a century with Magellanic penguins in Punto Tombo, Argentina.

Penguin Characteristics

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Rockhopper penguin
The penguin's waterproof suit is composed of thousands or small hard feathers that overlap each other like shingles, forming a shell virtually impregnable to water. Underneath these feather is a thick layer of insulated down and for afford protection against the cold. Underneath this penguins have several layers of body fat around their bodies.

Penguins feather grow uniformly all over their bodies. Each feather is short and stiff and has a second short shaft covered with very thin, downy filaments that together form the undercoat. On land, where it can be much colder than in the water, the feathers shift slightly away from the body so they can hold a warming layer of air. In the water, the feathers flatten out and with the help of preening oil form a waterproof skin.

Penguins are black on the back so the blend in with the dark sea when viewed from above and are white on the bottom so they blend in with the pale sky when viewed from below. Penguins on islands off the coast of South Africa and Namibia have spots on their chests that are as unique as fingerprints. Individuals use the markings to identity one another. Penguins that live in warmer climates generally have longer appendages and more bare skin around the face to help them get rid of excess heat. Penguins that live in colder climates generally have shorter, stubbier appendages and well-insulated bodies with longer feathers to help them conserve heat.

Penguins at Sea

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Porpoising gentoos
Some penguins spend as much as 85 percent of their life at sea. They spend days, weeks and even months at sea. For some species, the only time they come ashore is to molt and breed. Many species are migratory.

As an adaption to the sea, penguins have lost many features found in flying birds. Their bones are longer lightweight and hollow but are heavy and solid (this enables them stay underwater better); their feathers have as much in common with fur as flying feathers; they often have layers of fat (they don’t need to keep weight off to fly); and their tails have become stumps (steering is done with the feet).

When hunting emperor penguins dive below their prey so their can look up and see the fish in silhouette against the sea ice before making their move. Solid bones provide penguins with ballast when they dive, sometimes to 275 meters or more.

Swimming Penguins

The penguin’s short stubby wings are adapted so penguin’s fly through the water. Like other flightless birds they still have their breastbones. Most other swimming birds swim using their feet. The only other ones that don’t are diving birds such as some species of petrel.

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swimming gentoo
On the surface penguins adopt a position similar to that of ducks or cormorants. Penguins swimming underwater zip around like torpedoes, leave contrails of bubbles in their wake. They can make rapid twists, turns and loops as they chase after their fast-moving fish prey and escape fast-moving predators. They use their feet and stiffened tail like rudders to steer.

Some penguins can swim faster than fish. Gentoo penguins have been observed swimming at 27mph. Most species swim between 3 and 6 mph and can reach higher speed when threatened or pursuing prey. Emperor penguins, the largest of all penguins, can stay underwater for 23 minutes and dive to 1,700 feet and sometimes travel 600 miles on a single trip.

"Underwater," the famous ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson wrote, "penguins are as clean-lined as porpoises; there heads, pulled pack to the shoulders, contribute to a torpedo-like contour... Their wings, reduced to flippers, are propelled by powerful pectoral muscles, which enable them to hit speeds of 15 miles an hour. Penguins are the only birds that have developed the trick of porpising. Time and again I have watched them leap clear of the water and then slip back in again...breathing each time they are above the surface.”

Emperor penguins surface from some of their dives with almost no oxygen in their bodies, according to research by Paul Ponganis of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the lowest blood-oxygen levels ever recorded in a mammal or bird. The levels are less than a quarter of the level in which most people back out. The discovery was made by inserting oxygen-sensitive probes in the penguin’s blood vessel connected to microprocessors on the penguin’s back and letting the birds go fishing. How do they do it? The answer appears to lie with special proteins in the brain called nueroglobin and cytoglobin, which appear to only need small amounts of oxygen to keep organs functioning.

Penguins on Land

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Royal penguins
When penguins come to shore they generally gather together with other penguins in massive colonies. Generally they come ashore to molt and breed. The annual molt generally lasts three to six weeks. During that time a penguin loses all of its feather and grows new ones. When a penguin is molting it is not waterproof and cannot enter the water. Deprived of food a penguin may lose a third of its body weight or more.

Penguins get around on land in two ways. They can prop themselves up with the stubby tails and waddle like Charlie Chaplin: or they can lie face down and toboggan around on their stomachs, kicking with their feet and paddling with their wings.

Penguins are famous for popping out of the sea like bread from an old-fashion toaster. "Coming into land," Peterson wrote, "each penguin swam the final stretch underwater and then popped onto the shelf of rock like a jack-in-the-box...They bounced from bolder to bolder likes midgets in a sack race. When the rocks became too steep or slippery, they dug their sharp nails into grooves gouged by their ancestors over the years. Charmed by these deceptively doll-like birds, my companions were tempted to pick them up — they weigh only six pounds and stand scarcely two feet high. 'Don't try it." I warned. 'There is nothing cuddly about them. The cutting edge of a rock hopper's beak is knife sharp."

Penguins sometimes pop out of near freezing water into sunny warm weather. How do they adjust? "To avoid heat prostration when ashore" Peterson wrote, "a penguin can fluff its feathers to allow warm air trapped close to the body to escape. It may also pant, stand with its flippers well out from its body, or lie down with its feet extended, so that capillaries close to the surface of the underwing or the feat can release heat."

Scientists have long been trying to locate where penguin colonies are from space so they can make accurate assessments of their numbers and know where to look for them. But locating them from space using satellites imagery on a continent as large as Antarctica has proved to be a daunting task. One method that was discovered by accident but which seems to work is to look for penguin excrement — which appears as reddish-brown streaks on the white ice — from space.

Penguins and Leopard Seals

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leopard seal
Leopard seals are a penguin's greatest worry. As many as one in every three penguins may be taken these nine-foot-long predators. Peterson once came across a group of penguins who sought refuge on an ice flow, "Two of the birds were mutilated and bloody," he said. "The predatory seal, lurking under the lip of the ice, surfaced two or three times, watching us. Then an incautious penguin plunged in and swam for shore. Quick as a flash the leopard seal grabbed [the penguin] and thrashed it this way and that, literally shook the body out of the skin. A leopard seal will feed on krill, by when near a penguin colony it likes its krill pre-processed."

Penguins are known to leap into the boats of tourists when pursued by a leopard seal. On land or ice where the seal isn't so adept penguins will strut within a few feet of the predator.

Paul Nicklen witnessed leopard seals take several penguin chicks. He said what the seals prized most was a penguin stomach filled with krill and that it took them significantly more time to catch adult penguins than their young. On one attack he wrote in National Geographic, “In a death shake, the large female shred a penguin chick by whipping it from side to side...All I saw was a splash and storm petrels and gulls gathering for scraps...the large female dived to eat her prey.”

Penguins are also fed on by killer whales.

Penguin Behavior

According to an "urban" myth penguins look upwards at planes and helicopters and follow them until the fall backwards. A team of British scientists traveled to the Falklands Islands in 2001 to study of the phenomena and found it is true.

Penguins are very social animals. They often hang out in groups. In the mating season they live in large colonies. Penguin rockeries are quite smelly, from urine and guano and regurgitated baby food.

Roger Tory Peterson has said that penguins remind him of humans: "There is constant bickering — constant greeting, protest and challenge. There is love (but no privacy). There is thievery, as when one penguin steal's another's stones to build a nest, and even juvenile delinquency when unmated two or three year olds clumsily take over unguarded nests and chicks, which they may not properly care for." Penguins enjoy being touched. In the winter they stay warm by huddling together.

Penguins Identify Mates, Kin by Smell, Study Finds

In September 2011 Reuters reported: “Penguins can sniff out the odor of lifelong mates, helping them reunite in crowded colonies, and also can identify the scent of close kin to avoid inbreeding, scientists said on Wednesday. Some seabirds have previously been known to use their sense of smell to find food or locate nesting sites but the experiments with captive Humboldt Penguins at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago proved, for the first time, that the birds use scent to discriminate between close relatives and strangers. [Source: Andrew Stern, Reuters, September 21, 2011]

"Other animals do it, we do it, so why can't birds?" said Jill Mateo, a biopsychologist at the University of Chicago, who worked with graduate student Heather Coffin on the research published in the journal PLoS ONE. "Their sense of smell can help them find their mates and perhaps choose their mates," Mateo said."Seafaring birds that travel long distances in the ocean use odors to find food and use odors to recognize nests but we didn't know what odors or the extent to which they could use odors to recognize kin," Mateo said. "This was the first study to show they can use odor to recognize genetic differences," she said.

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rockhopper rookery
Researchers worked with two groups of endangered Humboldt Penguins raised at the zoo, totaling 22 birds. Their behavior was recorded as the birds examined scents emitted by oil from the birds' preening glands. The gland near the bird's tail excretes oil used to keep them clean but also has an olfactory purpose.In one experiment, penguins with mates preferred the comfort of their mates' scent over the scents of unfamiliar penguins. In another, penguins without mates spent twice as long investigating unfamiliar penguins' scents than those belonging to their close relatives.

"In all sorts of animals that we study, including human babies, novel odors, novel cues, are investigated longer than less-novel cues," Mateo said Scent is used by many species to attract mates, or to avoid mating with relatives, she said. For Humboldt penguins, which nest on Peruvian cliffs and spend long periods foraging at sea, odor acts as an identifier when they return to colonies crowded with thousands of birds nesting in cracks and crevices.

"It's important for birds that live in large groups in the wild, like penguins, to know who their neighbors are so that they can find their nesting areas and also, through experience, know how to get along with the birds nearby," said animal behavior expert Dr. Jason Watters of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo. "It could also be true that birds may be able to help zoo matchmakers in determining potential mates," Watters said. "You could imagine that if (naturalists) were trying to reintroduce birds to an area, you could first treat the area with an odor the birds were familiar with. That would make them more likely to stay," he said.

Penguin Mating, Prostitution and Homosexuality

Telling males and females apart is very difficult. Even penguins it seems sometimes have difficultly making the distinction. Sometimes a male confronted with another penguin determines the sex of the stranger by picking up a pebble and dropping it in front the penguin whose sex they are trying to figure out. If the stranger picks a fight the pebbledropper knows it male. If it shows indifference then he knows it’s a female. If the female shows interest in the male the male may bow, then the two penguins stretch out wings and their necks and make a loud celebratory call and mate.

Some penguin mate for life; others get divorced. Magellanic penguin expert Dee Boersma told the New York Times, “When we do our census, we find individuals with mates other than those they had the year before — and they are living within meters of their mates. That’s more likely to happen by the way, if the couple has failed at raising a chick; they’ll move to another mate...And yet, we find other pairs with great fidelity. We have one pair that stayed together for 16 years. What’s really interesting is that if the penguin keep the same mate, they raise more chicks. Fidelity gives them great evolutionary success.”

Adelaide penguins are largely monogamous but sometimes they engage in a form of prostitution. These birds make their nests from rocks. Sometimes there are so many penguins at a given nesting site that supplies of rocks run short. Females sometimes offer to have sex with males who have accumulated large piles or rocks in return for some of their stones.

Some species of penguins form life-long same sex pairs, especially in captivity. A pair at a zoo in New York incubated rocks together until their keepers gave them an egg. The unions are at least partly attributed to difficulty in finding opposite sex partners among the small groups of penguins in zoos and aquariums. It is not known how common homosexual pairing is among penguins in the wild. This revelation turned out to be an embarrassment to conservative Christians in United States that trumpeted penguins in the film “March of the Penguins” as paragons of family values.

Penguins and Their Young

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Magellanic Penguin adult and 2 chicks
Many penguins raise their young in huge colonies. Bother the male and female help take care of the of the eggs and young. Parents of many species spend much of their time away from the nest gathering food. The chicks are fed fish caught by their parents and regurgitated into their mouths.

Parents recognize their chicks out of the multitude when they return with food by the distinctive calls the chicks make. The sounds made by different chicks appear to sound very different to penguins even though they sound the same to humans. Although penguins may look and sound all alike to us, experiments with penguins and tape recorders have shown penguins can instantly recognize their mates and chicks by sound .

Penguins build minimal nests. Some make burrows. Each incubating penguin holds an egg on top of it feet and incubates it with its body. Adelie penguin parents simply abandon their young after a certain period of time. After the chicks get hungry enough they make their way to sea and dive in and begun hunting for krill.

The Pinguinerias of Patagonia contain some of the largest penguins colonies in the world. At PuntoTombo there is literarily over a million Magellanic penguins scattered on the shores and barren hills. The breeding season is September to March. Between December and January the young penguins are taken to the sea for the first time. During the March access to Punto Tombo is sometimes restrictrd as the birds prepare to migrate. Unlike their slick black-and-white tuxedoed parents, the chicks are covered with soft grey down and feathers.

prehistoric penguin Icadyptes
Penguin chicks don't have the smooth streamlined bodies of their parents. They are odd looking bundled of baby fat and fur-like down. Many fall victim to swooping birds of prey such as skuas who grab the chicks while the parents are hunting at sea.

Giant Five-Foot Penguin Lived 36 Millions Years Ago

In October 2010, Reuters reported: “The preserved feathers and scales of a giant fossilized penguin discovered on Peru's central coast provide a glimpse of Peru's Eocene period, and how the species evolved to its modern state, paleontologists say. ancient version of the marine bird was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall and weighed almost 60 kg (132 lb), dwarfing today's Emperor Penguin, the largest of the modern-day species. [Source: Emily Schmall, Reuters, October 5, 2010]

"By looking at this fossil, we were prompted to ask new questions about living penguins and the world we live in today," said Julia Clarke, an expert in avian anatomy at the University of Texas at Austin. The paleontologists date the remains to 36 million years ago. They dubbed the ancient penguin "Inkayacu paracasensis," which means "emperor of the water" in the indigenous language of Quechua. "Without doubt this is the most complete specimen of ancient penguins that exists," said Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, the lead paleontologist and the head of the University of San Marcos' Museum of Natural History in Lima.

prehistoric penguin Pachydyptes ponderosus
The mostly intact fossil skeleton allows scientists to understand the anatomy of early penguins, Salas-Gismondi said. The coloring of the fossil suggests penguins did not start off black and white, and may have evolved over time to adapt to new climate conditions. "The feathers we discovered are a reddish-brown. It was rather large and lived in a period when the planet was very warm, totally unlike the penguins of today. This specimen is very important for understanding the evolution of modern penguins," Salas-Gismondi said on Monday.

A young researcher first stumbled upon the remains in 2006, when he was studying the habits of aquatic birds in the Paracas National Reserve, 280 km (174 miles) south of Lima. Salas-Gismondi, who led an excavation in 2007, says the skeleton was preserved under a protective blanket of sediment, in an anaerobic environment when world temperatures were at their highest. The teeth of a prehistoric whale and shark cartilage millions of years old have previously been recovered near Paracas. "It was a truly incredible moment to see something like this for the first time," Salas-Gismondi said. The findings were first revealed in the September 30 issue of Science.

Giant Penguin Feathers

prehistoric penguin
Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi
"We got incredibly excited," Clarke told AP. "Moving really slowly, flake by flake by flake through this giant block," they eventually uncovered a flipper with layers of small feathers and under it, fossilized body feathers, too. On the surface, they're shaped like the feathers of modern penguins. Popsicle-shaped wing feathers were densely stacked on top of each other to create a stiffened flipper, Clarke said. When they looked more deeply, the feathers were far different. The outer shape apparently evolved before some microscopic changes that may play a role in penguin's underwater prowess.[Source: Lauran Neergaard Associated Press, September 30, 2010]

Pigment is long gone in fossils. But left behind in feathers can be microscopic packets called melanosomes that in life contained colour-producing pigments — and the shape of those melanosomes corresponds to different colours. So the researchers compared a library of melanosomes from living birds with these fossilized ones.

The big surprise is that it turns out modern penguins have large melanosomes packed into grape-like clusters, unlike those of any other known bird, while the extinct giant penguin's smaller melanosomes resembled those of other birds, Clarke said. The scientists can't explain the difference. But they say it probably has to do with more than the black tuxedo or dinner jacket coloration of today's penguins.

Melanin, the pigment inside melanosomes, helps feathers resist breakage. So one possibility is that the melanosomes got bigger during later penguin evolution as the birds became better underwater swimmers and needed a more hydrodynamic covering. Clarke is anxious to get back to Peru and see if more fossil finds will help tell.

Endangered Penguins and Pressure from Human Activity

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Royal penguins
Whalers and mariners used to boil penguins and use the oil to waterproof their boats. In the 1800s millions of penguins were killed by hunters who boiled their carcasses in iron pots and scraped off the oil which was sold for cooking. In the 1980s a Japanese company suggested setting up a concession in Punto Tombo and turning the hundreds of thousands of penguins into oil, protein and gloves. The plan never implemented due to the public outcry over it.

Of the 17 different penguin species, 12 are suffering from rapid decreases in numbers. The Punto Tombo colony of Magellanic penguins has declined in size by 22 percent since 1987. Dee Boersma of the University of the Washington told the New York Times. “Through the tagging we've been able to show that in the last decade, the birds are swimming about 25 miles further in search of food. They're having trouble finding enough fish to eat. That costs a penguin energy and time while their mate is sitting on the egg, starving, So when they return to the nest to relieve their mate, they arrive in poorer body conditions. And then the mates also have to go farther for food.”

“These penguin are now laying eggs on the average of three days later in the breeding season than they did a decade ago. That means the chicks may leave for sea at more inopportune times, when fish mat not be close to the colony, many will not survive to come back and breed.”

Boersma blames climate change and exploitation of the penguin’s food sources by commercial fishing. In the case of the Magellanic penguins oil pollution is also a problem, In the 1990s 80 percent of the dead penguins found along the coast were covered in oil. The situation improved when tanks lanes were moved further out to sea.

High concentrations of DDT have been found in penguins. Antarctica's Emperor and Adelie penguins have been infected with a poultry virus believed to have been introduced by the careless disposal of poultry products and spread by scavenging birds.

Starved Penguins Washing Up on the Beaches in Brazil

In July 2010, AP reported: “Hundreds of penguins that apparently starved to death are washing up on the beaches of Brazil, worrying scientists who are still investigating what's causing them to die.About 500 of the black-and-white birds have been found just in the last 10 days on Peruibe, Praia Grande and Itanhaem beaches in Sao Paulo state, said Thiago do Nascimento, a biologist at the Peruibe Aquarium. [Source: Stan Lehman, Associated Press, July 20, 2010]

Most were Magellan penguins migrating north from Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands in search of food in warmer waters.Many are not finding it: Autopsies done on several birds revealed their stomachs were entirely empty - indicating they likely starved to death, Nascimento said. Scientists are investigating whether strong currents and colder-than-normal waters have hurt populations of the species that make up the penguins' diet, or whether human activity may be playing a role. "Overfishing may have made the fish and squid scarcer," Nascimento said.

Nascimento said it's common for penguins to swim north this time of year. Inevitably, some get lost along the way or die from hunger or exhaustion, and end up on the Brazilian coast far from home. But not in such numbers - Nascimento said about 100 to 150 live penguins show up on the beach in an average year, and only 10 or so are dead. "What worries us this year," he said, "is the absurdly high number of penguins that have appeared dead in a short period of time."

Tracking Bands Hurt Penguins

In January 2011, AP reported: “Some scientists studying penguins may be inadvertently harming them with the metal bands they use to keep track of the black and white seabirds, a new French study says. The survival rate of King penguins with metal bands on their flippers was 44 percent lower than those without bands and banded birds produced far fewer chicks, according to new research published in the journal Nature. [Source: AP, January 12, 2011]

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banded penguin
The theory is that the metal bands - either aluminum or stainless steel - increase drag on the penguins when they swim, making them work harder, the study's authors said. Author Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, said the banded penguins looked haggard, appearing older than their actual age.

Consequently, studies that use banded penguins - including ones about the effects of global warming on the seabirds - may be inaccurate, mixing up other changes in penguin life with the effects from banding, said Le Maho and colleague Claire Saraux. Le Maho said this is the first study showing a long-term harm from banding penguins. "There is an ethical question: should we continue" with banding penguins” Le Maho asked. The very act of studying the birds is harming them, he said.

The researchers followed 50 already banded adult penguins and 50 without bands for 10 years, tracking them with under-the-skin transponders. Thirty-six percent of the non-banded seabirds survived for 10 years, compared to only 20 percent of the band-wearing birds. In general, penguins live about 20 years. King penguins - among the largest penguins at 3-feet (1 meter) tall - can live even longer, Le Maho said. The no-band penguins had 80 chicks, while the banded seabirds produced 47 chicks, a 41 percent drop. The penguins were studied on a French island in the Indian Ocean between Africa and Antarctica.

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Penguin researchers have long debated the use of bands. The bands weigh just under an ounce and are a bit more than an inch wide, Saraux said. One prominent American penguin researcher, P. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, has been banding another kind of penguin for 28 years and will continue. "Their study shows that the bands they used on King penguins were a problem," Boersma, who studies Magellenic penguins, wrote in an e-mail. "You don't want to say all flipper bands are terrible because the evidence is not there."

Boersma said the difference in species matters. She pointed to a 14-year study she did that showed that male Magellenic penguins with two bands survived the same as unbanded penguins, but that study did show that double-banded females had a lower survival rate. Le Maho said he sees no reason why bands would harm some penguin species but not others.

Another expert, who was not part of the French study, said he found the case against banding convincing. Norman Ratcliffe of the British Antarctic Survey, which no longer uses bands, said it "augments a growing body of evidence" that bands harm the penguins and may bias the studies. There is an alternative to the metal bands, Ratcliffe and the French researchers said. That's using transponder tags that are injected under the penguin's skin and send radio signals to buried antennas, much like pets with radio chips embedded in them.The seabirds spend more time in the water than on land, and the transponder doesn't affect the penguin's swimming, Saraux said. But Le Maho said this technique is a bit more expensive and has some other drawbacks.

Different Species of Penguin

The smallest of the 17 species of penguin is the fairy penguin. It weighs between.7 and 2.1 kilograms and is 39 to 41 centimeters in length. The largest is the emperor penguin. It weighs between 19 and 46 kilograms and reaches lengths of 115 centimeters.

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Emperor penguins have been recorded diving to a depth of 1,720 feet and staying submerged for 20 minutes. Emperor penguins only have sex once a year for a period of two or three minutes. During copulation the female lies face down on the ice, supporting herself with her beak and flippers. The males mounts her, holding her beak with his beak, and balances himself with his flippers. The process is difficult and the male often slips and falls in the water before he is successful.

When hunting Emperor penguins dive below their prey so they can look up and see the fish in silhouette against the sea ice and then zoom in for the kill. A critter was hooked up to one in 1999 by National Geographic researchers.

The king penguin, the second largest penguin, is also the most colorful of all, with their "blue-gray jacket, bright orange collar and silvery white shirtfront.” King penguins dive to depths of 900 feet and roam 900 kilometers from their nesting areas. When they dive the pupils of their eyes widen to 300 times their size they are in the sun.

An Adélie penguin can jump 5 feet straight up. For most of the known history they fed mostly on fish then suddenly around 200 years they suddenly shifted their diet to krill. Scientists think that this happened because around 200 years ago is when seals and whales — both large consumers of krill — began being hunting extensively by humans, meaning there were less of them to eat krill. The resulting population explosion of krill meant that was more of that kind of food for penguins and other animals to eat.

The macaroni penguin, named when macaroni meant "fop," has dropping reddish gold plumes and lays two eggs, one smaller than other. Even though two chicks may hatch only one is raised. Rockhopper penguins roam 250 kilometers from their nesting areas. They poke and jostle each other and have been known to go out of their way nip at the shins of tourists.

Magellanic Penguins

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Magellanic penguin
Magellanic penguins reach ages of 30 years or more. They live in the sea for five months without touching land. The only come to shore to molt, nest and raise their young.

Magellanic penguins have been seen near Rio de Janeiro, 2000 miles north of their usual range. Changes in ocean currents caused by global warming are believed to have contributed to the phenomena.

Describing what Magellanic penguins at Punto Tombo do on an average days, Dee Boersma, who has studied them since 1982, told the New York Times, “The penguin rise early, but they spend the morning calling each other from their nests and socializing, Around 8 or 9, they head down to the beach. “ There are more than 200,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins on the shores and barren hills at Punto Tombo, one the largest penguin rookeries in world. After mating and hatching and the hatching of eggs, adults wait out the molting season before returning to sea. The penguins go about their business, mindless of the tourists around them, walking only feet away. It is fun to watch the birds bunny-hop into the sea and dart like torpedoes through the water.

Emperor Penguins

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Emperor penguin
Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) are the largest of all penguins — an average bird stands some 45 inches (115 centimeters) tall and weights up to 88 lbs (40 kilograms). Their average life in the wild is 15 to 20 years. [Source: Jennifer Hile, National Geographic Channel, March 29, 2004]

Jennifer Hile of the National Geographic Channel said, “During the Antarctic winter the South Pole becomes the coldest place on the planet. Temperatures regularly plummet to minus 60̊ Fahrenheit (minus 50̊ Celsius), prompting most of the 9,000 species of birds that cross the continent to hightail it for warmer climes. Only one bird — the emperor penguin — will winter on Antarctica and use the frozen continent as a nursery. When the winds really start howling, the birds march inland by the thousands, creating 40 or so breeding colonies on the sea ice along the edge of the continent.

"This is an animal that does things in extremes," said Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. Ponganis has studied penguins for over a decade. "Emperors can fast for extreme amounts of time and dive to extreme depths, which allows them to live in a very extreme place."

Emperor penguins live on the Antarctic ice and in the frigid surrounding waters. They employ physiological adaptations and cooperative behaviors in order to deal with an incredibly harsh environment, where wind chills can reach -76̊F (-60̊C). In the winter they huddle together to escape wind and conserve warmth. Individuals take turns moving to the group's protected and relatively toasty interior. Once a penguin has warmed a bit it will move to the perimeter of the group so that others can enjoy protection from the icy elements.

Underwater Flight and Feathers of Emperor Penguins

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Emperor penguins
Jennifer Hile of the National Geographic Channel said, “Emperor penguins are veritable sea bullets — they can zoom to a depth of 1,500 feet (500 meters) to feed, holding their breath for as long as 22 minutes. That allows the penguins to exploit resources other birds can't. Working from his gale-proof base at the McMurdo Station on Ross Island, just off the Antarctic continent, Ponganis tags along on some of the penguins' dives by corralling a few of them and attaching miniature video recorders to their backs. Other bite-sized gadgets measure the penguin's oxygen levels, heartbeat, and temperature. [Source: Jennifer Hile, National Geographic Channel, March 29, 2004]

"Penguins are as well designed for underwater flight as birds are for flying in the air," Ponganis said. "And when they swim, they really are flying underwater. A penguin's wings act the same while it's swimming as a bird's does while it's flying."

However, a penguin's strokes are even more efficient. "Emperors can exert propulsion on both the upstroke and downstroke, while most other birds only exert pressure on the downstroke [during flight]," said David Ainley, an ecologist at H.T. Harvey and Associates, a biological consulting firm in San Jose, California. Ainley has studied Antarctic birds for over 20 years.

Long glides to the surface probably help emperor penguins conserve energy during their deepest dives. Another key is their solid bones. While skybound birds have evolved hollow bones to lighten their weight, penguins gradually lost that internal airspace — decreasing their buoyancy so they can plumb the depths. Even then, emperor penguins never get wet.

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An emperor penguin’s outer feathers are flat, well oiled, and watertight. There is an air space between those feathers and the bird's skin that water never penetrates, keeping them from turning into icicles in the black Antarctic sea. "They have the highest feather density of any bird, about a hundred feathers per square inch (6.5 square centimeters)," Ainley said.

"Underneath their feathers, it can be 30̊ to 35̊ Celsius [86̊ to 95̊ Fahrenheit], while the outside air is minus 20̊ or minus 30̊ Celsius [minus 4̊ or minus 22̊ Fahrenheit]," Ponganis said. "That's more than a 60̊ temperature difference separated by a layer of feathers that is maybe a half an inch (one centimeter) thick."

Male Emperor Penguins Care for Eggs in the Harsh Cold

Jennifer Hile of the National Geographic Channel said, “Emperor penguins spend the long winter on the open ice — and even breed during this harsh season. Females lay a single egg and then promptly leave it behind. They undertake an extended hunting trip that lasts some two months! Depending on the extent of the ice pack, females may need to travel some 50 miles (80 kilometers) just to reach the open ocean, where they will feed on fish, squid, and krill. At sea, emperor penguins can dive to 1,850 feet (565 meters) — deeper than any other bird — and stay under for more than 20 minutes. [Source: Jennifer Hile, National Geographic Channel, March 29, 2004]

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Male emperors keep the newly laid eggs warm, but they do not sit on them, as many other birds do. Males stand and protect their eggs from the elements by balancing them on their feet and covering them with feathered skin known as a brood pouch. During this two-month bout of babysitting the males eat nothing and are at the mercy of the Antarctic elements.

Not only do emperor penguins rear their young in the extreme Antarctic environment — they do it while fasting. Once they hit the ice, there will be no opportunity to feed. After the female lays her egg and passes it off to the male, allowing her to head for the sea to feed. The male promptly tucks the egg into a small pouch over his feet. He will balance it there until it hatches. Inside the pouch, the egg is kept at a toasty 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) the average body temperature of an adult.

The key to surviving this impossible feat is the huddle. Rarely moving, never eating, standing in frigid cold, the fathers-to-be will lose half their body weight incubating their egg over the next two months. Most male penguins are known for being obstreperous, territorial squawkers. Not emperor penguins. They huddle in tight knit groups that can number in the thousands while tending their eggs.The largest colony is on Coulman Island in the Ross Sea, where as many as 25,000 males hunker down.

Huddling keeps them warm. There can be a 20̊ to 30̊ temperature difference between ambient air inside the huddle compared to the shrieking cold outside it. Since the animals don't have to work as hard to stay warm, their metabolism slows down and they burn less fat. As a result, their ability to survive the fast increases.

Emperor Penguins Care for Their Young in the Harsh Cold

Jennifer Hile of the National Geographic Channel said, “When female penguins return to the breeding site, they bring a belly full of food that they regurgitate for the newly hatched chicks. Meanwhile, their duty done, male emperors take to the sea in search of food for themselves. [Source: Jennifer Hile, National Geographic Channel, March 29, 2004]

Mothers care for their young chicks and protect them with the warmth of their own brood pouches. Outside of this warm cocoon, a chick could die in just a few minutes. In December, Antarctic summer, the pack ice begins to break up and open water appears near the breeding site, just as young emperor penguins are ready to swim and fish on their own.

Although scientists like Ponganis and Ainley have discovered much about how the birds thrive in this harsh climate, that doesn't answer the question of why they choose to raise their young during the raging Antarctic winter. "The reason that they do it is for the stability of sea ice. They are breeding and rearing their young on ice that will melt come summer," Ponganis said. "Starting in January, their colony sites will begin breaking up into open ocean." Once the chick is born around early August, the mother returns from feeding at sea to give dad a break. For the next five months, he and his partner will take turns regurgitating fish and squid to the chick.

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Adelie Penguins

Once the sun starts heating up the water and the ice begins to dissipate, the emperors leave their chicks, forcing them to fend for themselves for the first time. "December is the start of the Antarctic summer, when food is most available, thus making it as easy as possible for their chicks to forage," Ainley said.

As the ocean swells start tearing apart the ice, the young chicks become increasingly agitated. Once it's clear their parents are not returning, usually in the first week of January, the chicks head from a world of collapsing white into a dark and frigid sea. For their parents, a few months of gorging begins in preparation for the following May, when the ritual of rearing young in the most forbidding climate on Earth begins anew.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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