emperor penguinScientific Name– Aptenodytes forsteri

Conservation Status– Near threatened

Appearance

Emperor penguins have a smooth, streamlined body that reduces drag in the water. They have smooth, stiff wings which act more like flippers. The back of the emperor penguin is coloured black or blue-black while the underside is white or yellow. The head is black as is the beak. Along the base of this is a yellow line. Along the base of the 8cm (3in) beak is pink or orange line. Between the body and the head on the cheeks is a circular patch. The bottom half of this is white while the top is yellow. Their feet are coloured black and between each of the toes is webbing.

The male of this species has a flap of skin between the legs and the lower abdomen known as a ‘brood pouch’. This protects the egg and the chick during breeding season.

Between November and February this species appears brown as they undertake their moult. This is when the old feathers coming through push out the new ones.

In 2001 one chick which was all white was found. This is not an albino though as it did not have the pink eyes that characterise them as albino.

Emperor penguins stand 100-120cm (39in-47in) tall. Their wingspan is between 76 and 89cm (30in-35in). The weight may range from 22-47kg (50-100lb). Males weigh more than females. There are no other noticeable differences. They are the 5th largest bird species. Weight varies by season due to the breeding as they do not eat for this time.

Lifespan                                                                                  

Lifespan is generally accepted to be 20 years. Unconfirmed reports of birds living to be 50 do exist though.

Diet

Emperor penguins are carnivores which catch food from the waters around Antarctica. They feed upon fish, squid, and crustaceans. Their main food source is the Antarctic silverfish. They will make long dives to go down and capture fish. A preferred method of hunting is to swim down so they can see the fish against the sea ice and then swim up to catch them. In a hunting trip they may complete this manoeuvre 12 times before they surface to breathe.

To swallow the fish they have barbs on their tongue that prevent them from escaping.

Habitat

Antarctica is the home of the emperor penguin. Only 2 of the Emperor penguin colonies live off the coast of Antarctica.

This species makes its home on pack ice. Breeding colonies will settle near ice cliffs and icebergs which shield them from the wind. As the ice is beginning to melt some penguin colonies are losing their homes. They are also affected by the fact that the sea ice is re-freezing later in the year.

Reproduction

At the beginning of winter emperor penguin colonies will meet 50-120km (31-75mi) inland from the sea. It is believed that the trigger for them to move to these areas is the decreasing light levels. They will then pair up and mate.

To court a female the male completes a display where he places his head on his chest, inhales and then lets out a 1-2second call. He will continue this around the colony till a female decides to mate with him. The pair will then stand face to face and one extends its head and neck upwards. The other will then copy this gesture. After holding this posture for a few minutes they will waddle around the colony. Then they will turn to each other and one will deeply bow their head. After the other repeats this mating begins.

The pairs are monogamous and do not find another mate. Between years they will almost never remain faithful. This is due to the urgency to mate which does not allow enough time for them to find each other.

emperor penguin63 days following this mating the female lays a single egg. After this she will go out to sea to hunt while the male incubates the egg. This requires them to exchange the egg. As this is a fiddly process many eggs are lost when they are dropped.

For 65 days the males huddle together as they incubate the egg. At the end of this period the females will return from their hunting.

The young chick has grey fluffy down over its body. This is found all over except for the head where they have a black stripe around the outside and the rest is white.

When the female returns she provides some of the food she has eaten to the chick by regurgitating it. If the female does not return before the egg hatches males can produce a milky white substance from a gland in their digestive tract to feed them on. Once the female has returned the male will go out to hunt returning at a later time to help rear the chick.

After around 50 days the parents place all the chicks together in a huddle known as a crèche. This allows them to both go out to sea. They return periodically to feed the chicks.

By five months old the chicks are losing their down feathers and gaining their adult plumage. This means they can go out to sea and hunt with their parents. It is at this time they become independent from the parents.

Up until they are ready to breed the chicks do not go to the breeding grounds instead hanging close to the shore. It is not until 5 years of age that they can breed.

Behaviour

Predators of the emperor penguin include killer whales, skua, leopard seals, sharks and Antarctic petrels. These penguins are adept at defending themselves. When six men attempted to catch one they were regularly tossed around by this bird.

Emperor penguins are a highly social species. These birds hunt together and during this time can coordinate their diving and surfacing. When swimming they will sometimes carry out an activity known as ‘porpoising’ which involves them jumping out of the water while swimming so they can breathe and can continue swimming through the water at the same speed. When diving these birds can reach depths of 500 metres.

This species can be active at any time of the day with no clear pattern being evident.

Quick facts

An emperor penguin is the main character in the movie Happy Feet. Zeke, ‘Big Z’ Topanga, from Surf’s up is also an emperor penguin.

Emperor penguins are the largest and deepest diving penguins in the world.

30 countries have featured the emperor penguin on their stamps.

Only 2 zoos worldwide house emperor penguins.

This species is the only penguin which breeds during winter.

Photo Credits:

Top        – By Hannes Grobe/AWI (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom – By Georges Nijs from Diepenbeek, Belgium (Nature Antarctica 14) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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