The Penguins FAQ

"Some people have told me they don't think a fat penguin really embodies the grace of Linux, which just tells me they have never seen an angry penguin charging at them in excess of 100mph. They'd be a lot more careful about what they say if they had."    — Linus Torvalds.
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Here are a couple of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about penguins I received from kids and penguin lovers. My answers apply mainly to the two kinds of penguins I know best, the Adelie penguins and the Emperor penguins. Just remember that although I've lived with penguins for more than a year, I'm no substitute for a real ornithologist... IANAO, I just impersonate one on the Internet ! Before you read the FAQ, have you read the FACTS about Antarctic penguins ?



[RacingPenguin.jpg]
A racing penguin... No, seriously, it's an adelie penguin which has been tagged by biologists so they can recognize him.

What ?

Right: A racing penguin... No, seriously, it's an adelie penguin which has been tagged by biologists so they can recognize him.

What's a penguin ?
A short-legged flightless bird of cold southern regions (Antarctica and sub-antarctic islands) having webbed feet and wings evolved as flippers.
Who discovered the Adelie or Emperor penguins ?
Nobody knows. The first discoverers of Antarctica saw many on the shores, but it's also possible to see them farther north, resting on floating pieces of ice, so even explorers of southern seas who didn't reach Antarctica saw many in the 18th century. And sometimes penguins get lost and end up in the wrong places. There was an Emperor penguin spending the winter in Tasmania, alone, a few years ago. Antarctica itself was thus discovered much later than the penguins that live on it.
Adelie penguins are named after Adelie Land which was named by French discoverer Dumont d'Urville after his wife, Adèle, in 1840. So even if people had seen Adelie penguins before him, they did not give them a specific name.
Captain Cook saw many King Penguins during his 1775 trip. The biologist of the expedition, Forster, made many drawings. 69 years later, Gray studied those drawings and noticed one that was different: it was the first Emperor penguin, thus the latin name Aptenodytes Forsteri.
Where does the word 'penguin' come from ?
The first animal called penguin was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Buy at Amazon.comGreat Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds. It was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. Then when later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. The word itself has muddy origin; it originally seemed to mean 'fat one' in spanish/portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh 'pen gwyn' (white head), from the Latin 'pinguis' (fat) or from a corruption of 'pin-wing' (pinioned wings).
Where do penguins come from ?
The earliest known fossils of penguins were found in Peru. The 80cm tall Perudyptes devriesi living 42 million years ago and the more impressive but more recent Icadyptes salasi, 150cm 36 million years ago.

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Emperor penguins on the edge of the ice shelf, ready for departure in spring. This image is actually used in Al Gore's presentation An Inconvenient Truth

Right: Emperor penguins on the edge of the ice shelf, ready for departure in spring. This image is actually used in Al Gore's presentation Buy at Amazon.comAn Inconvenient Truth Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

How many species of penguins are there ?
There are currently 17 species of Penguins (some scientists divide them in 18 or even 19 species). Fossil records indicate that there used to be more in the past. The current ones, all living in the southern hemisphere, are: Adelie, African, Chinstrap, Emperor, Erect Crested, Fairy, Fjordland, Galapagos, Gentoo, Humboldt, King, Macaroni, Magellanic, Rockhopper, Royal, Snares Island and Yellow Eyed. Some have multiple names (royal=king, little blue=fairy...). The current species are divided into 6 genus: Aptenodytes, Eudyptes, Eudyptula, Megadyptes, Pygoscelis and Spheniscus. I know well only the Adelie and Emperor which lived in the vicinity of Dumont d'Urville, but I have a few pictures of the Fairy (aka Little Blue) and Yellow Eyed penguins on my Tasmanian and New Zealand pages.
Many more species of fossil penguins are known.
Are new species of penguins still being discovered ?
Amazingly the answer is yes... but not living species. In 2008 New-Zealand researchers announced the discovery of bones belonging to a previously unknown specie, the Waitaha penguin, which went extinct about 500 years ago, soon after the human settlement of the islands.
How many penguins are there, total ?
Many parts of Antarctica, including some of the shores, have never been explored, so the precise number of penguins is unknown. Evaluations have been done by counting manually the penguin population in some areas and extrapolating to the entire continent. The numbers of 2 300 000 pairs of Adelie Penguin and 220 000 pairs of Emperor Penguin have been proposed by some researchers. But keep in mind that those are highly inaccurate statistics, most colonies not having been visited in decades, and many more having never received a visit. Also some estimates have been performed at the wrong time of year or not from manual counts (based on aerial photographs for instance).
In 2012, a team of scientists using high resolution satellite imagery to view the spots of guano (penguin poop) raised this estimate to reach a count of 595000 emperor penguins. Those scientists really know their shit (see below)...
Indeed new colonies are sometimes discovered, like the two colonies discovered in the area of the Merz glacier near Dumont d'Urville in 2012. We are talking about 12 thousand new penguins here.
Why aren't there penguins in the Arctic ?
Well, as you just read above, there used to be one flightless bird called penguin, also known as the Great Auk, but it was hunted to extinction four centuries ago. The reason that there aren't any is probably because of predators: penguins need to go on land to nest and are quite defenseless with their feet on the ground. Antarctica and other southern island are devoid or have few land predators. The Arctic has bears, wolves, foxes, rats and more...

[AdelieFeathering.jpg]
An adelie penguin moulting in autumn.

Right: An adelie penguin moulting in autumn.

Are penguins mammals/birds/fish/...?
Here are a few clues: they lay eggs, they have feathers, they breathe air, they have clawed feet, they have a beak... Can you put the clues together ?
I had a good laugh recently when talking with two veterinary students. One was certain that penguins are mammals (like seals), the other was certain that penguins are fish. I hope my pets don't ever get sick !
Do penguins have feathers ?
Yes they do, like all birds. Their feathers are very compact and hard. When they are hot they ruffle them. And we could often see them plucking out old feathers or scratching (they have parasites like fleas, mites and even ticks [Ixodes uriae]). On the picture on the right you can see an Adelie penguin losing its old feathers before returning to sea, a process called moulting (also spelled 'molting' and also called feathering or shedding) that happens in november-december for Emperors and march-april for Adelie penguins.
Can you send me some penguin feathers ?
Unfortunately I never brought back any, so don't ask...
Do penguins have ears ?
They do not have external visible ears. But they do have an ear canal (there's probably a more scientific term for it) under their feathers that allows them to hear sounds both in the air and underwater. Hearing is an important sense for them as they recognize each other by their voice.

Not cold ?



[HotChick.jpg]
An Emperor penguin chick overheating on a hot spring day.

Right: An Emperor penguin chick overheating on a hot spring day. Image available as a free wallpaper

Why don't penguins get cold ?
Mainly because they are fat ! Fat has two main purposes in the body: it is a good insulator against cold and also it is a reserve of energy. When the emperor penguins arrive in autumn to stay the winter in Antarctica without eating, about half of their bodyweight is made of a 4cm thick layer of fat which they will use to withstand the long cold nights.
But most of the thermal insulation is in reality provided by their feathers: the outer layer of hard feathers act as a wind-breaker, while the underlayer of down provides excellent thermal insulation. Indeed if a penguin develops bald spots, he will likely not survive for long and die from hypothermia; read the enlightening story of Pierre the penguin after he developed bald spots !
Also the structure of the penguin feathers gives them an increased protection against cold: an outer layer of long hard smooth feathers streamlined for fast swimming (that also probably protects them from the wind), but underneath is a layer of short fluffy down feathers providing better insulation by trapping air.
Penguins also possess heat exchangers inside their body so that the cold blood flowing in the extremities is not mixed directly with the warm blood from the main body, but recirculated after being oxygenated by a complex of veins called the Rete Mirabile. This is a good way to minimize heat loss for their feet, flippers and nostrils by maintaining them at a colder temperature than the main body. In other words penguins have cold feet in bed.
Their short and stocky body shape also minimizes thermal loss: short legs, feet hidden under the body, short neck, flippers flat against the body...
Penguin chicks have very warm down feathers around their body, but because they are smaller in size they seek protection under the belly of a parent. When they grow bigger they become more independent, staying in groups called crêche. Also their down feathers are not waterproof and they will die from the cold if they fall in water or mud (see the picture below of a wet chick about to freeze to death).
As a general rule: the colder the area they live in, the bigger the penguin (you retain heat better when the volume/surface ratio increases).
Can penguin get too hot ?
Penguins can actually overheat in Antarctica on warm summer days: when the temperature is high they erect their feathers a lot to increase airflow and heat exchange, they extend their flippers away from their bodies to radiate more heat, they spread out far form each others, they lay down on the ice (right picture) and they pant; all signs I've seen in unlucky penguins kept in zoos, and yet another reason not to keep one as a pet.
There are penguins who are used to the heat, such as Galapagos penguins which live very near the equator. But that's not the case of the Adelies or Emperors.


[EmperorWind.jpg]
Emperor penguins withstanding a storm.
Penguins, as a bird and also like mammals, need to maintain a precise and fairly high body temperature in order to keep their metabolism working. The exception is that penguins are known to decrease their body temperature when in water, so as to minimize heat loss (which is proportional to the difference of temperature between body and outside).
The penguins most exposed to the cold, the Emperors, need to be social to survive the hardship of winter. During the coldest and windiest winter nights, they pack together in what is called a huddle: those in the middle are warm and exchange position with those outside after a while.

Right: Emperor penguins withstanding a storm.


Why ?

Why do penguins have a white belly and black back ?
Those colors make the penguins less visible when in the water: as seen from above you see a black back above the darkness of the deep sea; as seen from below you see a light belly in front of the bright sky. Not too visible either way (plenty of fish are like that). In other words it is a defense mechanism when underwater. You've probably noticed that it makes them quite visible on land, but Adelies and Emperors don't really have predators there.
I don't know if the orange neck of the Emperors has a specific function, but only adult penguins have it. Juvenile penguins (one to two years of age) only have a gray neck.
Are there albino penguins ?
Yes there are white penguins, although technically the mutation is different than the one resulting in albinism. They are called 'Isabelle' penguins. Their normally black coat is a creamy white. There used to be a white Adelie nesting in the vicinity of DdU, but every time I went out to try to photograph it, it was out to sea. Like with other animals, albinism is a hindrance for penguins, making them more visible to predators when underwater. There's an art film by Peter Huyghe about the search of an all-white penguin called "The Journey That Wasn't".
And you know what, there are even rarer all black penguins ! One all black King penguin is visible here on South Georgia island.


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A sleeping adelie penguin, with his head under his flipper.

Right: A sleeping adelie penguin, with his head under his flipper.

Are penguins nocturnal ? Do penguins sleep ? Where do penguins sleep when they are at sea ?
The Adelie and Emperor penguins are diurnal. Nocturnal activity is for most animals a way to avoid predators, and those penguins don't have predators when they are on land, so they are active during the day and rest at night. I don't know what their activity at sea is. But what about the night in Antarctica anyway ? In summer there isn't any night but the sun does get lower on the horizon, and during those periods you can indeed see Adelie penguins sleeping. It's also true for the Emperors who spend the long winter nights huddled together without moving but usually spread out on the ice a little when there's the daily short hour of sunlight.
Other species of penguins that live on mainlands like in South-Africa, South-America, Tasmania or New Zealand often have different behaviors. The Little Blue penguins come out of their burrows before sunrise to go feed at sea and come back after dark, but they probably spend the rest of the night sleeping safely inside.
Adelie and emperors penguins sleep standing when they sit an egg, or sometimes laying down on their belly if they don't. Adelies often rest their head under a flipper (see picture on right). And they close their eyes. Like all birds they have a very light sleep anyway, never staying quiet for more than a few minutes.
I believe they can sleep at sea for a few minutes at a time between the times they need to breathe (like dolphins), but mainly they just find a piece of floating ice, hop on and take a nap.
My class wants to know if emperor penguins see in color or are they color blind ?
This article analyzing the visual system of humboldt penguins answers yes, but they see colors differently as we do. 'Adapted to the spectral qualities of its aquatic environment' is the key phrase here. I assume other species have a similar visual system but I have no direct evidence.

Eggs ?


[AdelieEgg.jpg]
An Adelie penguin's egg hatching. See the beak of the baby penguin beginning to break the shell open ?

Right: An Adelie penguin's egg hatching. See the beak of the baby penguin beginning to break the shell open ?

How do they choose a mate? Do all penguins have a mate?
I don't know what their criterion for choosing one mate versus another one is... Probably the fatter the better ! In the case of emperor penguins there are slightly more females than males, so some females end up without a mate and leave the rookery after a few weeks. Better luck next year.
How big is a penguin's egg ?

[EmperorEgg.jpg]
An emperor penguin's egg.

Left: An emperor penguin's egg.

An Adelie egg is slightly larger than a large hen's egg and shaped the same. An Emperor's egg is much bigger, up to 15cm long and 12cm diameter with a conical top and a spherical bottom. The picture on the right shows an Adelie penguin's egg hatching (see the beak of the chick beginning to break the shell), and on the left picture I'm holding an emptied Emperor's egg. Emperors don't build nests: they carry their eggs balanced on their feet, under their belly. They usually don't move much, but if they take a big step, like to catch their balance or to flee, then they drop their egg; and once their egg is out of their pouch they will not recognize it anymore. The egg promptly dies, freezes and cracks and eventually falls into the bottom of the sea when the sea ice melts off in spring. So we had the possibility to recover and clean some abandoned eggs.
The first Emperor penguin egg was found on floating ice in 1840, without knowing its origin. Wilson saw it in a museum and recognized it as such in 1905, and he also discovered the first rookery of Emperor penguins in 1902 at Cape Crozier. In 1911 he decided to do a harrowing winter trip to recover some eggs with Bowers and Cherry-Garrard, the only winter trip ever attempted in Antarctica, which is recounted in the famous book: Buy at Amazon.comThe worst journey in the world, one of the best read about Antarctica. They barely survived. He later died on the return trip from the South Pole with Captain Scott.

[AdelieNestMaking.jpg]
A breeding pair of adelie penguins adding rocks to their nest to keep their newborn chick out of the seeping water.

Right: A breeding pair of adelie penguins adding rocks to their nest to keep their newborn chick out of the seeping water. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

What's a penguin nest like ?
Emperor penguins don't have nests. They balance their egg on their feet, keeping it warmly covered under a pouch of fatty skin under their belly.
Adelie penguins make nests out of rock pebbles and sit on top. They steal each others pebbles constantly, leading to lots of braying and fights. The last ones to leave in autumn steal everybody else's pebbles and make a huge stack in prevision of their spring return. But then the early comers in spring transfer the pile to their own nest ! That is to say before they have to go back to the sea to feed at which point a free-for-all happens with lots of name calling.
Other species use different methods: nests hidden under very thick bushes for Yellow-Eyed penguins, underground burrows for Little blue penguins...


[BadNest.jpg]
This is NOT a penguin's nest ! This is probably a young adelie penguin who's not been listening to what I said earlier about adelies making their nests out of pebbles to keep their eggs out of the mud. Not only is this penguin just sitting in front of the egg instead of sitting on it, but the egg is also sitting in freezing muddy water. The egg is clearly dead. But the penguin will learn and will do a better nest next year. The success rate for breeding offsprings is pretty low for young penguins but increases dramatically after a few years.

Right: This is NOT a penguin's nest ! This is probably a young adelie penguin who's not been listening to what I said earlier about adelies making their nests out of pebbles to keep their eggs out of the mud. Not only is this penguin just sitting in front of the egg instead of sitting on it, but the egg is also sitting in freezing muddy water. The egg is clearly dead. But the penguin will learn and will do a better nest next year. The success rate for breeding offsprings is pretty low for young penguins but increases dramatically after a few years.

Do emperor penguins always go to the same breeding grounds?
Up until 2014 it was thought that Emperor penguins were strongly philopatric, meaning that they would always go to the same breeding area, year after year. But recent satellite images have shown that there are rookeries that suddenly appear out of nowhere in areas that never had them before. Now this is news for several reasons. For one if the Emperor were 100% attached to the same area, it would be a recipe for disaster in term of climate change (if no ice forms for a few years, the entire colony would be wiped out). So it could be that Emperors are more adaptable than thought. On the other hand, it is strange that an animal that strongly relies on memory would change place easily, meaning this change could be due to groups of birds getting lost due to strong and recent differences in ocean currents, ice formations, etc. Which does not bode too well.
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 !
Is there ever adoption among Emperor Penguins ? ...for instance in cases when both parents leave and abandon the chick.
Unfortunately no, the chick will starve and die since they are still too young to swim for their own food. Adults already have a hard time feeding one chick. Sometimes lonely females (those that failed to mate that year) grab abandoned eggs, but those eggs are frozen and dead in the first place and they abandon them quickly. If the mother doesn't return, the father doesn't have a choice: he and his chick will die if he stays. If he leaves he can always try mating with more success the next year...
In 2006 I received this message from Phil Chapman showing that apparently there are cultural differences among penguins in different parts of the frozen continent. It remains to be seen if they feed them or remember them at all between their sea strips:
I would like to take issue with one of your FAQs, where you say that Emperors never adopt stray chicks.
Many years ago (1958, during the IGY), I spent most of the winter in a hut adjacent to the Emperor rookery at Taylor Glacier, 80 km west of Mawson. (I was taking parallactic photos of the aurora, in cooperation with a colleague at Mawson).
This rookery, one of only two on land, is now a SPA, but in those days nobody was concerned about disturbing the birds. I spent a lot of time with them, observing them at close range throughout their breeding cycle.
In the early spring, when a chick escaped from its parent, all the adults in the vicinity would rush to grab it and stuff it between their feet. Sometimes they would drop chicks they already had in order to pick up the stray. I often saw 5 to 10 adults in a melee, all trying to get the same chick (which was sometimes stomped to death in the process).
A little later in the season, when many chicks were loose and often freezing to death, if I stood still for a few minutes, some chick would usually come and snuggle between my feet, apparently taking me for an outsize adult. Sometimes I would pick it up and put it in the chest pocket of my parka to let it get warm, but of course I couldn't save them all.
So, my observation is that Emperors are not at all selective about whose chick they nurture.
Are penguins monogamous ?
Adelie penguins usually keep the same mate all their life, unless the mate dies. Emperor penguins are monogamous... for a year, meaning they usually change mate every year.
Do you think mother penguins are sad to leave their baby eggs to get food ? Why do they have to do this ?
It's always difficult to attribute human emotions such as sadness to animals (a process called anthropomorphizing). In the case of penguins I don't think it's possible short of measuring stress-related hormones or similar invasive methods. Anyway, I don't think it's been done.
They have to leave their eggs/younglings otherwise they would starve. And they come to have babies in a place where they risk starving because it has other advantages, like a complete lack of predators, and a reversed feeding cycle (meaning there's plenty of food in the sea when they go back there).
Why doesn't the female emperor feed the male when she gets back ?
That would be counterproductive since the male still has the energy (barely!) to trek back to the sea to go feed himself. The chick doesn't have that option and thus deserves all the mother can give him.
Is it possible to breed two different species of penguins ?
The possibility of hybridation depends on various factors like the number of chromosomes and the 'distance' between the species (or rather the age of their last common ancestor). But in nature it is difficult because most penguin species breed in different places and/or at different times, so they don't meet during their reproduction period.
In the wild some cases of hybrids are suspected between royal and rockhopper penguins, between rockhopper and macaroni penguins, between rockhopper and erect-crested penguins, and maybe between adelie and chinstrap.

Protection ?

Are penguins endangered ?
It's hard to get an accurate count of Emperor and Adelie penguins because there are many places where they live that no human has ever visited, but apparently they are not endangered, although their numbers fluctuate with the availability of food in the sea. So for instance El Niño episodes will have a strong negative influence on the number of penguin chicks born. Adelie and Emperors don't have land predators and humans leave them alone nowadays, which is not true of most other species of penguins who live on islands which have been colonized by rats (everywhere), wild cats (King Penguins at Kerguelen), dogs (blue penguins in New Zealand) or too many tourists (Galapagos penguins).
Someone I met (not sure if he's a friend) told me he once ate a penguin a long time ago and said it tasted something like a mix between a chicken gone bad and a smelly fish, and very fat at that ! Recipe below... But being bad to eat didn't protect them from human barbarity. Last century the whalers hunting in the southern indian ocean (and maybe other areas) needed heat to melt off and process whale fat. There isn't any wood on those southern islands so they invented a barbaric device: a 'penguin press' into which they would throw hundreds of live penguins, crush them to extract their fat, and then use this fat as combustible. The population of king penguins decreased dramatically at that time but has since recovered. I'm glad this time is over.
Still, overall 12 of the 17 species of penguins are considered 'at risk' or endangered, mostly due to human activity. Those living in Antarctica have the least risk, thanks to their isolation.
Does global warming affect penguins ?
For Antarctic penguins, the answer is 'somewhat but not directly'. In the Climate FAQ I detail some of the effect of global warming on the frozen continent. A few degrees of changes won't affect penguins much when on the shore, but it affects the distribution and growth of their preys. While less sea ice means much fewer km for the emperors to walk back to the sea to feed, it also means that their nesting areas are also more at risk of being dislocated by storms while the chicks are still unable to swim.
When preys become rarer, for instance during El Nino episodes, not only penguins have more difficulty in finding food, but they also become prey more often to larger predators who also have more difficulty finding food ! That's the drawback of being in the middle of the foodchain.
Where can I get or buy a penguin ?
Sorry, all species of penguins are protected, you can't get one legally. Even if you come to Antarctica and bring one home as a souvenir, it's plain illegal. And honestly, do you really think an animal that spends half of its time swimming free in the ocean and the other half in deep cold Antarctica would have a happy life in a hot, dry and small home ? And what drives them crazy in captivity is the fact that they cannot perform their yearly migrations, leading many zoo penguins to swim around in circles for months on end. You'll have to satisfy yourself with a stuffed teddy penguin.
I do know of at least one place that sells penguins but I won't tell you. Don't ask.


[WetChick.jpg]
A wet Adelie penguin chick that will die in a few minutes. Falling in freezing water is deadly when you are a baby penguin.

Right: A wet Adelie penguin chick that will die in a few minutes. Falling in freezing water is deadly when you are a baby penguin.

How do you care for a penguin ?
How did you find a penguin in the first place ?!? True, sometimes they end up washed ashore exhausted by storms or wounded by predators or boats... If this is the case, be careful that their bites can be very painful and they also give mean punches with their bony flippers (they can break your fingers easily). Grab them by the neck and hold them off the ground for quick transportation. If you can, put a hood over their eyes as they will immediately calm down.
In '92 my predecessors in DdU adopted two emperor chicks they had found abandoned on the ice (this happens when one of the parents doesn't come back in due time). They kept them indoors and fed them leftover foods: raw fish at the beginning but also canned fish and even meat. Those two grew up to be the biggest and fattest penguins of the area and were later released in the sea, quite healthy. So I guess they are not particularly picky since their normal natural diet consist of an oil specially secreted by the parents.
In New Zealand in 2000 several thousand little blue penguins got contaminated by an oil spill; they were collected and distributed among volunteers for cleaning and care; they even put sweaters on them to keep them from plucking they contaminated feathers. The survivors were later released at sea.
Chicks depend on their parents for survival between hatching and the growth of their waterproof feathers: about seven weeks for Adelie chicks, 6 months for Emperors and even more for King chicks. Chicks' down feathers are not waterproof and they must stay away from water or mud, unlike the Adelie chick shown on the left picture which died a few minutes after falling in muddy water. Yes, it's a harsh world and that's why Adelie penguins build nests out of pebbles. Once a chick has feathered (or fledged), it enters the sea and becomes independent of its parents.


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Adelie penguin swimming fast and jumping out of the water.

Right: Adelie penguin swimming fast and jumping out of the water.

How can I find a job that deals with penguins ?
You mean zookeeper ? Kid working in a south-east asian sweatshop making stuffed teddy penguins ? Linux kernel developer ? Hockey player in Pittsburgh ? OK, the proper term would be ornithologist (bird scientist). Most ornithologists are hobbyists, but you can get a PhD and make a job off it. All the information you want (and more) is in the Going To Antarctica page.

Food ?


[Krill.jpg]
Krill, a little shrimp that is the main ingredient in the penguin diet.

Right: Krill, a little shrimp that is the main ingredient in the penguin diet.

What do penguins eat ? How do emperor penguins get their food ?
They swim fast and catch it in the sea: krill (picture on right), shrimp, small fish, octopus... They catch their prey with their beak and swallow it whole while swimming. The Antarctic ocean is very rich with life, more so than the equator for instance. The reason is quite technical: cold water can absorb more oxygen than warm water, it's a physical property. Similarly cold water can absorb less salt than warm water. And the ocean (at a minimum of -1.8°C) is always warmer than the land. Those two issues make it easier for life to thrive in cold oceans, although the cold temperature slows down animal metabolism (or requires insulation such as fat) and the lack of sunlight in winter stops the photosynthesis of plankton.
What is krill ? Krill is a kind of shrimp, with a mostly transparent body, a few pigmented red dots and large black eyes. There are 85 species of krill in the world, living in large groups on the ocean surface, forming groups of up to two millions tons spanning 450 square km. Krill is the most common animal in the world with an estimated biomass of 650 million tons. The antarctic krill, Euphosia superba, is at the center of the foodchain being eaten by squid, sea mammals, birds, fish and some whales. With a very low efficiency since they need to eat 100kg of krill to grow by just one kg. But the austral foodchain is so narrow that it's very fragile, an overfishing of krill would put many species in trouble, including penguins.
Adelie penguins eat about 2kg of krill and fish each day when they are out at sea.
Penguins are extremely good swimmers that can dive to 500m of depth and stay submerged for 5 minutes, but don't forget that, like dolphins for instance, they need to go back to the surface to breathe fresh air regularly.

[AdelieFeedV2.jpg]
Close up view on a spiny penguin tongue. This helps holding and swallowing slippery preys such as fish.
How do penguins drink ?
When at sea they get water either from their prey or by drinking small amounts of salt water. A special gland near their beak can remove the salt from the sea water, making it drinkable. When on land they eat some snow.
How are penguins able to regurgitate food for their young long after having eaten it ?
There are 3 different ways to feed their young amongst penguins species:
Some keep freshly caught fish/krill in their stomach where they have special enzymes that inhibit bacterial development although the fish is at body temperature. They can keep for several days before being regurgitated.
Others partially digest their keeps and then regurgitate this 'puree'.
Finally for the emperor penguins who have to go for weeks, they digest it completely and secrete a very rich oil which they feed to their young.

Right: Close up view on a spiny penguin tongue. This helps holding and swallowing slippery preys such as fish. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation


Feet ?

Do penguins have knees ?
They have the same basic anatomy as other terrestrial amniotes, so yes they do have knees, they are just hidden under a thick layer of fat. The fat plus the very short legs make for their strange gait. If you look at the pictures of the dead penguin below, you'll actually see the outline of the knees. There's actually a Buy at Amazon.combook by this very title, I can only hope it answers the question !

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An adelie paddling with his feet on floating ice. Penguins don't like this kind of conditions as they cannot swim fast and they cannot see if a sea leopard may be lurking underneath.

Right: An adelie paddling with his feet on floating ice. Penguins don't like this kind of conditions as they cannot swim fast and they cannot see if a sea leopard may be lurking underneath. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

What color are penguin feet ?
The skin looks like reptile skin: emperors have black scales with grey in-between while adelies have more pinkish skin. They also have strong nails they use to push themselves when sliding on the ice on their bellies or when scaling ice (for instance when they want to climb on an iceberg to rest while at sea). Emperors on land are sometimes seen laying back on their heels and tail so they can rest their feet (probably allowing more blood to flow and warm them up).
Do penguins make noise ?
Yes, and lots of it ! Pass your mouse over the first few pictures above to hear them. They have a very loud voice similar to a donkey braying. Those calls are essential since they recognize themselves only through voice, not visually. They call to attract mates, when doing courtship, when greeting a returning mate, when threatening other penguins (or a human coming too close), or sometimes when bored alone. Different species of penguins have different calls, and in some species like the Emperors the male and female have a distinct voice that one can tell apart with a little training (listen to the samples below).
On my first job in Antarctica, I installed a Sodar, an acoustic device to do remote sensing of the lower atmosphere. In summer the data was perturbed by the noise coming from all the Adelie penguins.
Here are the recorded sounds I have (just click on them): Now just try to imagine when there are 5000 of them at the ...

Life ?


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A dead Adelie penguin well on its way to becoming a fossil.

Right: A dead Adelie penguin well on its way to becoming a fossil.

Do penguins have predators ?
Emperor penguins do not have predators, either in sea (they are too fast) or on the land (no other animals in winter in Antarctica). In spring Giant Petrels will occasionally grab an abandoned chick, and also juveniles that haven't learned to swim well may fall prey to the Leopard Seal or a passing orca when first hitting the water. Thus emperor penguins hardly have any defense mechanism, they only start to turn around and flee if you get within one or two meters from them. Their main enemy is the cold and the distance to the sea; and on really cold winters some of them do not have the strength to make it back to the sea after their long fasting.
Adult Adelie penguins do not have predators on land; although their unattended eggs and chicks are often attacked by skuas (which is probably the reason why most penguins are afraid of what comes from the sky). When in the sea they have to avoid Leopard Seal and killer whales.
How come penguins don't fight or defend their young from predators ? I saw a documentary where the parents/adults watch as predators are feeding on their young.
Adelie penguins do fight if anything gets too close to their nest. But basically they don't have to as predators (skuas and giant petrels) will attack only abandoned and weakened chicks. What they showed as 'parents' were probably non-related penguins.
How do penguins tell each other apart ? How do researchers tell them apart ?
Well, not visually but thanks to their voices. Researchers are at a loss to recognize individuals because they can't identify their voices, so they resort to treacherous techniques like tagging or spray-painting them like on the picture at the top of the page !
How long do penguins live ? What's the life expectancy of penguins ?
Unlike many animals, Antarctic penguins are lucky not to have too many predators and it's possible for them to die of old age, a rare occurrence in nature. There's a female Emperor at DdU who was tagged 40 years ago, still coming and breeding every year. Adelie penguins have a life expectancy of 15 years or more in the wild. They don't tag penguins anymore because it's not very easy to do it reliably and it probably causes the penguin some trouble when swimming (the tag is a kind of arm-band). We sometimes see bodies of Adelie penguins stuck in the ice or the mud, what they died of remains a mystery: old age, disease, exposure ?
In captivity many penguins can reach old age, such as Pierre the penguin who almost died of... baldness but ultimately recovered thanks to... a wetsuit !
What happens to the bodies of all the penguins that die in Antarctica ?
Usually they get eaten by scavengers like skuas. If they die on the sea ice their bodies fall in the sea when said ice breaks up in spring. If they die on land ice (rare), they get carried by glaciers, and end up into an iceberg and then in the sea as well. If they die on a rare spot of iceless land, they don't decay but dry out, get covered with other penguins' excrements, sometimes end up as fossil but most likely get ablated by the very strong wind over the years and end up as dust and a few dry bones sticking from the mud. That's why Antarctica is not covered with penguin corpses accumulated over the years... But penguin fossils are found every once in a while.


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Adult adelie penguins aggressive towards a chick out of his own nest.

Right: Adult adelie penguins aggressive towards a chick out of his own nest.

Do penguins fight ? Are penguins aggressive ?
They have few predators, but Adelie penguins fight between themselves a lot for various reasons: for mates, for the best nest locations, for the possession of rocks and pebbles, if some other penguin gets too close to their nest... Those fights never go beyond the 'first blood' but I've seen penguins jump off cliffs in fright (or being pushed off !). Their defense mechanism involves loud braying calls, threatening attitudes (body moving side to side), pinching with the beak and hitting very fast with their flippers which are very hard (it's just a flat bone with skin and thin feathers on top). I was once standing in the middle of the base, talking with a colleague, when a penguin in a bad mood decided I was in his way. He bit me on the tendon inside the knee while hitting me very hard with a series of lightning fast punches ! I had a limp for a week.
Adult Adelies are particularly aggressive towards others' chicks. Chicks can be abandoned for two reasons: either a parent disappeared at sea and the other had to go feed, or they were born twins but the parents had only enough food to feed one chick (the biggest). In which case you see a wretched chick walking around the rookeries, getting weaker day by day, trying to get back to his nest but constantly harassed by his ex-parent and the other adults, and soon watched eagerly by a skua or two...
On the other hand, Emperor penguins are probably the most placid animals ever. No predators, so no defense mechanism. And they need to rely a lot on the others to survive the winter together, so the only time they display any kind of aggressivity are when the females compete for a male: they just stand around and try to interrupt him if he chooses a mate by standing in the middle. An issue he usually solves by walking around them. That's about all.

Where ?


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A emperor chick resting comfortably under its parent's pouch.

Right: A emperor chick resting comfortably under its parent's pouch. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Where are penguins located ?
Adelie and Emperor penguins live on the shores of Antarctica, in the few places that have rocks for Adelie and in the few places where the sea ice is stable enough not to be broken up by strong winter storms for Emperors. Just think that 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice, so that doesn't leave much rock for Adelie penguins to settle. And there are glaciers around most of Antarctica, making it too unstable and dangerous for Emperors to settle (glaciers move, they have crevasses, falling seracs...). Nothing in Antarctica lives more than a few minutes walk from the sea except for some micro-organisms.
In the spring of '93 we had a record number of Emperor penguin chicks next to Dumont d'Urville. Due to unusually warm and mild weather they spread out on the ice quite far way, leaving the sheltered area between the islands. Then a strong storm came and broke up the ice around the islands. After the end of the storm, two thirds of the chicks were missing, fallen in the deadly cold water while still wearing their down feathers...
Are penguins found only in Antarctica ?
No. Different species have different habitats: there are actually only 5 species in Antarctica (including Adelie and Emperors); King, Chinstrap and others in sub-Antarctic Islands (plenty of small islands that are located in the Antarctic Ocean, the south Pacific, south Atlantic or south Indian ocean); Little Blue, Yellow-eyed and others at the southernmost tips of America, Africa or Australia; there are even penguins near the equator, at the Galapagos Islands.
But there aren't any penguins in the northern hemisphere, although there used to be a very similar flightless bird of a different family, called the great penguin also known as the Great Auk, a cousin of puffins from the Arctic sea. Unfortunately it was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. Penguins are very slow and awkward on land, making them easy preys for predators, that's why they are only common on small islands or places that do (or did) not have any predators (including humans).

Groups ?


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A creche of emperor penguin chicks in early spring.

Right: A creche of emperor penguin chicks in early spring.

What is called a group of penguins ?
I can think of no less than 4 different terms:
A 'rookery'. Emperor penguins huddle together to form one very large rookery when it's cold and split in smaller groups spread on the ice when it's warm; they don't make nests but carry their eggs or their feet. Adelie penguins form small rookeries of 2 to hundreds of breeding pairs by building nests on rocky outcrops. Some say this term should be kept for rooks, a type of crow, but it's in widespread use for penguins.
When emperors are huddled close together against the chilly winter storms, in french this is called a 'turtle', just like the Roman legionnaires defensive position. But the english equivalent has less history behind it, the term being simply a 'huddle'. Penguins in this situation change position periodically, those on the outside moving back inside to shelter from the cold, something similar to bikers taking the lead temporarily although it costs them energy. This behavior was thought to be a fairly unique altruistic behavior, but it can be explained quite simply by evolutionary biology: no penguin want to be outside exposed to the cold, so they try to get to the center, but they don't want to fight for it (a big waste of energy), so they just push slowly till they get a better position; and later other penguins pushing in other directions will expose them again.
When they grow bigger and no longer need an adult at all time to keep them sheltered, the chicks group together in 'crêches' (picture on left), a French word for crib. They do this for protection against the cold and against predators (Skuas and Giant petrels) but are not cared communally by the remaining adults: adults will feed only their own chick which they recognize by its voice. There can be several crêches in a large rookery.
And more simply we also say that all the rookeries in a common area form a 'colony'.
Do penguins have a leader ? What's their social structure ?
They don't have a leader as such, but sometimes when a group action is necessary one penguin will take the initiative and all the others will follow as happens for instance when jumping in the water or beginning a walk. This does not give any advantage to the first one, except more risk of being eaten by a waiting leopard !
Why do they walk in a single line formation ?
This applies mainly to Emperor penguins as Adelies wanders in not particularly organized groups when going between the shore and their nests. Basically they just follow the leader, an older penguin who knows the way for their hundred of km treks. Some lines can have as much as 3000 penguins in a single file. How do they find the way ? I have no idea. Do they get lost ? Maybe, but they don't tell anyone.

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Adelie penguin footsteps on snow.

Right: Adelie penguin footsteps on snow. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

How long does it take the Emperor Penguins to make their trek to/from the group to feed ?
The distance can be anywhere from 60 to 250 km depending on ice extension, and it takes them an average of a week, one way. Add to this a week to fish and replenish their fat supply so it can take them a good month to do the round trip. If the ice extends particularly far that year, the long turn around times increase the mortality among the chicks who cannot be fed enough in time.
What other animals live near penguins ?
Seals, other birds like skuas and petrels, and even sometimes humans in places like New Zealand or the Galapagos.

Weird ?

What do penguins do for fun ?
When they are on land I haven't observed any behavior that even remotely looks like play. They only come on land for serious activities: reproducing and moulting. On the other hand, as soon as they go back to the water they swim in groups in circles, jump out in the air (also known as porpoising or breaching) and generally seem to be enjoying themselves.
Do penguins fall over when something fly over them ?
No. This is an urban legend and I can't believe the NSF actually funded a study on this. Adelie and Emperor penguins are moderately scared of things from the sky because that's where their only predators on land come from (skuas and giant petrels that grab their unattended eggs or chicks). They can also be afraid of noisy helicopters at first, but they get used to them very fast. In Dumont d'Urville, some Adelies are nesting less than 10 meters from helicopter landing pads. They just crouch for a minute when the chopper passes above them and then go on their business.
When out of the water penguins don't have very good vision, they are near-sighted so they can't really tell whether it's a bird or airplane flying above them unless it gets close and noisy.
How do you cook a penguin ? Penguin recipes ?
They are very fat, so a method that melts the fat off is better, like a roast. The blood is very rich in oxygen so the meat turns an un-appetizing dark as it cooks. The breast can make decent steaks. For doing an omelet, you need to remove some of the white of the egg otherwise it's not tasty enough; but the overall taste is the same than a normal omelet. Am I joking ? Maybe... Just remember that many an explorer can trace his survival to scrambled penguin eggs. Hardly a necessity nowadays.
If you want to know everything there is to know about the subject (except maybe the taste itself), I refer you to the recipe book "Fit for a FID" by Gerald Cutland or the book about the history of Antarctic cuisine "Buy at Amazon.comHoosh" by Jason C. Anthony.
Is it true that there are homosexual penguins ?
Yes, it is a behavior sometimes observed in zoo animals. There was a famous case at the NY zoo of two males taking turns caring for a fake egg, then given a real one and successfully raising a family. The children book Buy at Amazon.comAnd Tango Makes Three recounts this true story.
It's hard to tell if this happens in the wild as it's usually impossible to tell the difference between male and female visually. Note that Buy at Amazon.commany different animal species can Buy at Amazon.comexhibit homosexual behavior, so very far from the fundamentalist views that 'homosexuality is against nature'.

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Hole left by the body heat of an Adelie penguin who waited out a storm for several days... with skidmarks ! And those are feathers at the bottom of the hole.

Right: Hole left by the body heat of an Adelie penguin who waited out a storm for several days... with skidmarks ! And those are feathers at the bottom of the hole.

What color is penguin poop ?
I can't believe some of the questions I get... Well, here goes: it's kinda white with greenish and darkish streaks when it comes out, but when it dries it turns to reddish for Adelies and greenish for Emperors. The red comes from all the krill that they eat and there are large quantities of this red 'mud' accumulated around the rookeries (sometimes as much as 10cm thick). The green is probably bile due to the fact that the Emperors fast for a long period; the ice is covered with it in spring and melts back into the sea.
The fact that adelie penguins nest on rock outcrops makes it so that the higher ones 'shower' the lower ones. Just like in our own society I guess...
And to continue on this issue which decidedly uses lots of ink, the 2005 Ig Nobel price in fluid dynamics has been attributed to Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (International University Bremen, Germany and University of Oulu, Finland) and Jozsef Gal (Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary), for using basic principles of physics to calculate the pressure that builds up inside a penguin, as detailed in their report "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh — Calculations on Avian Defaecation".
And finally, you'll be thrilled to learn that penguin poop can actually be seen... from space; and even more useful, it can be used to count penguins ! Yes, if you use a satellite to view the spots of penguin poop, you can reach an estimate of how many emperor penguins there are. Answer: about 600 thousands. Unless they all had gastroenteritis.
can you tell us about emperor penguins for our prodject yu know issy you need to email her aswell
No. What about saying 'hello' ? What about signing your mail ? What about reading what's already on this page instead of asking me to do your homework ? What about not doing 8 spelling or punctuation errors in 19 words ? [yes, that is an actual email I received]
Do penguins make a case for 'intelligent design' ?
No more than any other animal in existence. For a clear view on the subject, read a real book for once, like something by Buy at Amazon.comStephen Jay Gould or Buy at Amazon.comRichard Dawkins, they can explain and put things in perspective much better than I ever could.

See the Antarctic Animals FAQ, the Dome C FAQ or the Climate FAQ for more frequently asked questions.