Inside the Beautiful Icy World of Tuxedo Penguins

There are innumerable species of animals that look cute, eat cute, behave cute, sleep cute, walk cute, run cute, swim cute, and fly cute.

Some people consider the giant panda as the cutest animal among all the others. Others believe it is the squirrel that is the cutest. Or maybe cats and dogs—more precisely kittens and puppies. A smiling quokka also highly competes for the title of the cutest animal. I personally would go for the otter whose seeing entangled in algae literally melts my heart.

All in all, people highly disagree over which animal they think is the cutest. However, almost everyone would agree that they, one way or another, cannot help but deeply fall in love with a chubby, waddling, Antarctic, tuxedo penguin.

And chubby, waddling, Antarctic, tuxedo penguins are what we are talking to you about today.

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Tuxedo Penguins

From the first look, it might be a little hard to decide what type of animal the penguin is. For instance, it is easy to look at the lion and see how much it looks like a cat. Dogs and wolves also look too similar. Wings directly refer to birds and fins are found in marine animals.

But with the penguin, it does get a little bit confusing.

Put simply, you can think of the penguin as part bird, part fish. It is a bird with strong wings but it does not fly. It has no fins; yet, it is a perfect swimmer and a competitive diver as well. Such kinds of birds are called waterbirds or aquatic birds. They live around or in the water; mainly freshwater.

In general, there are around 17 to 20 different species of penguins currently living on Earth. There are various estimations because many sources have different classifications of the penguin species. For example, some authorities may consider a penguin subspecies to be an independent species.

Besides those living species, there are other species of penguins that went extinct. However, their number is disputed.

Only one of the penguin species, the Galapagos penguin, lives in Ecuador and Chile in South America. The rest of the species inhabit the frozen, southernmost continent of Antarctica.

According to scientists and based on fossil records, penguins appeared on Earth nearly 60 million years ago. But due to their incredibly remote and frozen habitat, penguins were introduced to humans only in the 16th century. That is because humans themselves did not know Antarctica existed before that. Thanks to the European navigators who risked their lives to map our planet, Antarctica, and therefore, penguins were discovered.

And once a new animal species is discovered, a name has to be given to it. Usually, there are two names for every species or subspecies. The scientific name is the one used in academic contexts. It is usually complicated and hard to pronounce. In this matter, the scientific name for the penguin is Spheniscidae—I know.

On the flip side, the other species’ name is the common name which is popular among regular people. Finding a common name for this swimmer bird seems to have gone through some complicated processes until it eventually settled upon the penguin. And penguin means, well, fat!

📌 The sloth was called the sloth because sloth means laziness. Penguin directly translates to fat. Do you think this might be a little offensive to those animals? Or just a mere, innocent description?
Fun Fact

As we have mentioned earlier, the number of penguin species is estimated to be between 17 and 20. The smallest of them is called the little blue penguin. It is only 35 cm tall and weighs 1.5 kg.

On the other hand, the largest and most distinct penguin species now living on Earth is the emperor penguin, which is the one we are discussing in this article. 

The Emperor Penguin

The emperor penguin is pretty much aptly named. It comprises the major traits of an emperor. For instance, the emperor penguin is the tallest among all the other penguins. It is also the heaviest. In fact, the emperor penguin is the fifth heaviest bird with the ostrich being on top of the list.

Another fantastic feature about the emperor penguin is its seeming love for the cold. For instance, it is the only penguin species that breeds during the freezing winter. It also rarely goes on land. It spends most of its life either on ice sheets or underwater.

Besides, the emperor penguin is not territorial. That means its habitat is not limited to only one area. This gives the bird the luxury to live anywhere in Antarctica as if it dominates the entire continent.

A male emperor penguin is called a cock while a female is a hen. A baby is referred to as a chick and when it gets a little older it is a juvenile.

Emperor penguins live 20 years on average. That said, around 81% of chicks die during their first year—we will know why later on.

Appearance

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Almost all species of penguins look more or less similar. The emperor penguin, at least in my opinion, is the most attractive of them all.

Besides possessing the regular tuxedo shared by almost all penguins, the emperor penguin enjoys a different beautifully yellow-coloured head, neck, and chest. Despite looking too similar, male emperor penguins usually weigh more than females.

An adult emperor penguin is 110 to 120 cm tall. Some emperor penguins were found to have a height of 130 cm. It weighs between 23 and 45.5 kg. That said, male and female emperor penguins lose a lot of weight during their breeding season which includes incubating eggs and raising chicks.

Cold weather adaptation

The emperor penguin body is highly designed to survive the extreme weather of Antarctica where the temperature can drop to -60°C. The bird’s body is covered by a thick coat of feathers that insulate the body from the cold. The feathers are black on the back and bright white on the chest, belly, and inner areas. Such a feather coat is called plumage.

Interestingly, those plumage feathers are waterproof. The emperor penguin’s body releases oil that encapsulates the feathers and stops water from freezing on them. This way, the penguin always stays dry and warm when on land.

In addition, there is a thick layer of fat underneath the emperor penguin’s skin. It is what keeps it warm when underwater. Such a layer of fat reaches a thickness of 3 cm before breeding.

These two highly protective physical features allow the emperor penguin to keep a body temperature of 38°C no matter how low the surrounding temperature gets.

Moulting

Since the emperor penguin’s plumage is such a critical tool in its survival, it is routinely taken care of as the old feathers are shed and new feathers grow every year. Such a process is called moulting. Moulting does not happen with any deliberate interference from the emperor penguin but by its mere body nature.

Due to swimming and diving, crawling on the ground, and rubbing against other penguins, the emperor penguin’s plumage deteriorates, just like a sweater wears out after a year of continuous usage. So the penguin’s body goes through some processes to replace the old used plumage with a brand new one. Here is how this happens.

Every summer, which lasts from October to February in Antarctica, the plumage changes colour from shiny black to brown. In January, the penguin’s body begins moulting.

Usually, the new feathers grow underneath the skin to a third of their regular length. Then, they emerge from the skin, pushing away the old worn feathers. This stops the penguin from becoming completely bald. This way, the bird does not lose much of its body heat.

Moulting usually takes around 34 days, which is the shortest moulting period among other bird species.

But even though such a process still protects the penguin from getting cold, its new feathers are not fully grown when it loses its old features. To help compensate for this loss of heat, the penguin spends the summer season feeding as much as it can. Thus, it increases its body fat which in return helps it stay warm during moulting.

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Swimming and diving

Emperor penguins do not swim or dive for fun, nor do they want to shed some weight or get fit. They do this to look for food. In other words, they have no other choice but to dive and catch fish if they want to survive.

Such a life necessity has made emperor penguins perfect swimmers and divers. They can reach a swimming speed of 25 km/h. In addition, they dive deeper than any other penguin species does, typically as deep as 200 metres. Diving to such deep points provides the emperor penguins with a better chance of finding plenty of food. 

The deepest point an emperor penguin has ever dived to was 565 m. This happened after the penguin had dived regularly to 450 m. So this 565-metre depth sounds like a record the penguin hit after a long, tough practice! 

Additionally, emperor penguins can stay underwater for as long as 20 minutes. Sometimes, they even dive for longer than that.

Despite such a great ability to swim and dive, emperor penguins are still birds, not fish. Therefore, their respiratory systems have lungs and not gills. In other words, emperor penguins breathe oxygen from the air. So they need to go to the surface every now and then to catch a breath

📌 Despite dolphins being completely marine animals, they also have lungs, not gills. 

The question here is, how can emperor penguins stay underwater for much longer periods and dive to such great depths while they still need air to breathe?

Well, the answer, again, is their extraordinary bodies.

Through their evolution over millions of years, emperor penguins developed denser and heavier bones. These bones allow them to bear the huge water pressure at such great depths—the pressure underwater can get up to 40 times the air pressure.

Besides, the emperor penguins’ bodies are able to manage extremely low levels of blood oxygen. This enables them to stay underwater for longer periods. The emperor penguin is one of the few species that enjoys such a superpower, one that humans themselves lack.

Behaviour

Emperor penguins live in extremely large groups called colonies. The colony base is an emperor penguin couple, whether newly married or with chicks. Colonies can be of several hundred pairs and up to 20,000 pairs. Sometimes, colonies can be even larger than that.

We can boil down the behaviour of the emperor penguin to two general activities. The first is feeding and it takes place in the sea. The other is breeding and it happens in the breeding colony on land. Between these two activities, a lot of actions happen according to a highly accurate pattern. So let’s break it down.

Feeding

Unlike many other species, emperor penguins do not feed on a daily or weekly basis. Instead, they eat over a long period of time, enough to sustain themselves over a long fast.

In general, feeding happens during the summer season. This is when all penguins, males, females, and chicks feed at the same time. That said, both males and females feed individually during two different periods of time in the long winter season.

Being a waterbird and not having but water and ice all around, the emperor penguin mainly feeds on fish. It eats a large variety of them with the Antarctic silverside being its favourite and the most consumed type. Other types of emperor penguin’s food include squid and krill.

Emperor penguins need around 2.5 kg of food on average to maintain good health. When food is abundant, penguins can eat twice as much to help build the body fat necessary for their survival in the harsh Antarctic winters.

On the other hand, the emperor penguin is food for other types of animals and birds including the giant petrel and the polar skuas. These two are giant birds that usually prey on live or dead chicks. Adult emperor penguins may also get attacked in the water by the leopard seals and orcas (killer whales).

Breeding

As we have just mentioned, all emperor penguins feed during the summer season. This lasts from October to February. Once winter hits in March, all emperor penguins travel back to their breeding colony. This is where they spend winter and breed. The temperature during the winter breeding season often drops to as low as -40°C.

Colonies are usually in the same location where they were the year before, around 50 to 120 km far away from the sea. 

So, how do emperor penguins know it is time to go back home?

Well, the environment tells them. When the day is shortened, emperor penguins know winter is approaching. So they start heading back to their colonies.

If the returning emperor penguin has already married before, it looks for and finds its partner. If it is its first time to mate, it tries to find a good partner.

Adult males and females are both able to mate and start a family at the age of four to six years old. A female usually takes up to 7 weeks to lay an egg—she is a bird after all. This usually happens between May and early June.

An egg has the shape of a pear. It usually weighs 460 g and has measurements of 12 cm by 8 cm on average. The shell is quite thick so the egg does not break easily. Once a female has laid an egg, she transfers it to her partner.

Incubating

Due to its relatively large size, egg transfer is a difficult process. It must be done with extreme care; otherwise, the couple may crack or drop their egg. In fact, egg breakage often happens with first-time parents.

Furthermore, the egg transfer must happen really quickly. Even though the egg’s shell is thick, it is not thick enough to bear the extremely cold temperature or the ice underneath. If it breaks, the chick inside of it will freeze to death in under two minutes.

Losing an egg immediately ends that couple’s relationship. They separate and both go back to the sea.

When the egg transfer is successful, the female leaves the colony and goes back to the sea to feed for two months. That is because laying the egg has taken a lot of her energy and her fat store. A female usually loses around 6.5 kg during pregnancy. So she has to compensate for that. 

Meanwhile, the male who still maintains a lot of the fat he built during the summer season incubates the egg. He protects it from the cold by putting it on his feet and covering it with its brood pouch. This pouch keeps the egg at a toasty, warm temperature of 38°C.

Huddling

Antarctic winter lasts from March to October. So mating, breeding, and incubating all happen during the harsh winter season. The incubating season starts in early June and lasts between 65 and 75 days.

When winter storms hit, emperor penguins within the colony come closer and huddle together to keep themselves and their eggs warm. They move slowly in small steps, shuffle, and take turns from the inside to the edge of the huddle to allow all the colony members to stay warm. They also give their backs to the wind in a way to preserve their body heat

Males incubate eggs for 2 to 2.5 months. Then, the eggs hatch and the chicks come into the world. By the time this happens, the males will have fasted for nearly 120 days and lost up to 12 kg of their body weight. Such body fat which they built while feeding in summer was their main asset to bear such a long period of hunger.

Chicks

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An egg takes up to three days to complete hatching. That is because the shell is thick. Like several other bird species, the emperor penguin chicks are not fully developed when hatched. They are only covered with a thin layer of fine feathers.

By the time eggs hatch, mothers should have come back to the colony. Sometimes they can be up to a week late. That means males need to care for their newly-hatched chicks until their mothers arrive.

So males keep their chicks on their feet, covered with their brooding pouch, just like they did with the eggs. They feed the chicks some kind of milk called crop milk which is produced in their throats. It is rich in protein and can sustain the chicks for up to a week in case the mother is late.

Interestingly, only pigeons, flamingos, and male emperor penguins produce much milk.

Returning

Females return to the colony between mid-July and early August. After foraging for nearly two months, they have gained back the weight they lost while laying their eggs and have become beautifully chubby again.

So hundreds of mothers take off together and march back to the colony. As we mentioned, the colony can be up to 120 km away. And since penguins are slow walkers by nature—they walk at a speed of 3 km/h—it takes females quite a while to get back home.

When mothers finally arrive at the colony, they have to find their partners and their hatched chicks. But emperor penguins do not build nests. So a female has to find her family among thousands of other families in the colony. Interestingly, that is not hard at all for emperor penguins. Females use unique calls that their partners are able to recognise, making the relocation pretty easy.

Raising

After spending more than two months with them, it is quite hard for males to let go of their eggs or chicks to their female partners. But eventually, it happens and the chick is transferred to his mother who is now in charge of feeding and caring for it. Meanwhile, the male takes his turn and goes back to the sea to feed. He needs to regain his strength so he forages for around a month.

Now a question inevitably arises: if the colony is up to 120 km away from the sea where females feed, how can they feed their chicks when they come back? 

In fact, the food females get during those two months of foraging is usually not completely turned into fat. Some of it is partially digested and stays in the mothers’ stomachs. So when they come back to the colony, they vomit these partially digested fish and feed their chicks.

After a month, males complete foraging. So they go back to the colony to reunite with their families. After that, parents take turns in feeding at sea and taking care of their chicks in the colony.

Around mid to late September, the chicks are 45-50 days old. As the winter season is still ongoing, they begin to form their own baby colonies called creches. A creche can be as small as having 12 chicks or as crowded as having a few thousand chicks. Like their parents, members of the creches gather around and huddle together to keep warm.

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At such an age, chicks are old enough to stay on their own while both parents forage at sea and then come back to feed them.

At the beginning of November, chicks will begin to grow their plumage. By December, they have grown to juveniles. Their parents stop feeding them and they are able to go to sea and feed themselves.

At this time of the year, all emperor penguins, young and old, return to the sea and feed until the end of summer in February.

And the cycle repeats.

The cycle once again

Based on everything we have just demonstrated, we can summarise the feeding/breeding cycle of the emperor penguin as follows:

  1. Summer (October to February): all penguins, males, females, and chicks, feed at sea. They eat a lot, fatten up, and moult.
  2. Winter 1 (March to May): all penguins go back to their breeding colony. Couples breed. Females lay eggs, lose weight, and leave the colony to forage at sea Meanwhile, males, still chubby, stay with the eggs.
  3. Winter 2 (June to August): males incubate eggs until they hatch. Females still forage.
  4. Winter 3 (August to September): eggs hatch, and females return to take care of the babies. Males who have become skinny go back to sea and forage for a month.
  5. Winter 4 (September to October): males come back. Parents take turns foraging and feeding the chicks.
  6. Summer: (October to February): the cycle repeats.
📌 There are only two seasons in Antarctica: winter and summer. This is because the Earth is tilted 23°. So both the north and south poles receive way less heat and light from the Sun than any other spot on the planet. 

Failing to return

What we have just described is the regular cycle that male and female emperor penguins follow to breed and take care of their chicks. However, disasters do happen sometimes. For instance, mothers may fail to return to their colonies.

One of the challenges that females might encounter on their way back home is stepping on wafer-thin ice, falling in the water, and getting hunted by a hungry leopard seal. If such a thing happens, a mother does not come back to feed her chick.

Back home, the father, who has gotten extremely hungry by then, is waiting with his egg or already hatched chick. When the father knows for sure his wife is not coming back, he abandons his egg or chick and goes back to sea to forage. Otherwise, he may starve.

As a consequence, the abandoned egg never hatches. If it already hatched before the father walked away, there is a high chance for the newly-hatched chick to die unless it gets adopted by another female. Females who attempt to adopt stray chicks are usually the ones that could not mate during the breeding season or have lost their chicks.

Kidnapping

As we have just mentioned, sometimes single females may try to take care of abandoned chicks. Sometimes, these females are so desperate for a chick that they attempt to steal other chicks from their fathers or mothers.

The parents of the kidnapped chick immediately fight to get their baby back. They even get support from their friends or neighbours who join them to reclaim the stolen chick. Sadly, sometimes chicks die during these fights.

If the kidnapping female succeeds in keeping the stolen chick, she eventually abandons it. Since she is a single parent, it is quite impossible for her to feed the chick without the help of a male penguin.

As a result, the poor chick wanders around in the colony and begs other adult penguins for food and protection. It might push itself into the brood pouch of another adult even if it is occupied by another chick. But adult penguins push it away and refuse to take care of it. Eventually, the abandoned chick either starves or freezes to death.

Conservation status

When seeing a large emperor penguin breeding colony of thousands of pairs, one might think that the population of that penguin species is quite large. Well, it was until 2012. 

Before that, the emperor penguin was listed as ‘least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. When a species is of the least concern, that means it is quite plentiful in the wild and does not require conservation or special human-provided care.

However, in 2012, the emperor penguin was re-listed as near threatened! That dramatic decline in the population of the emperor penguin is mainly attributed to food becoming less available. As fishing companies affect the fish population, emperor penguins do not find enough food to survive in harsh Antarctica.

In addition, the presence of humans in their remote habitat highly disturbs the penguins during their breeding season. That affects the bird’s reproduction rate, especially since every female lays only one egg a year.

Another reason that has contributed to listing the emperor penguin as near threatened is climate change. The increasing temperatures melt the sea ice, the thing which affects the availability of kirk, the emperor penguin’s primary food.

Conclusion

And so we get to the end of today’s episode.

In this article, we got to know some interesting information about penguins, the waterbirds that live exclusively in the frozen continent of Antarctica. Then, we looked more into the emperor penguin which is the largest and most distinct penguin species of the 20 now living on Earth.

We have learnt how the emperor penguin is able to survive in such a harsh environment. Thanks to its perfect body, the bird can stay warm, even when going underwater, no matter how low the outside temperature gets. Besides, it is its body too that enables the emperor penguin to swim and dive for long periods and at great depths.

Then, we moved to the emperor penguin’s interesting life cycle. In it, the bird moves between the sea and its breeding colony on land all year long. It feeds on stages and males and females take turns looking after their chicks.

Finally, we demonstrated some interesting behaviours the bird displays when it encounters hardship. For instance, single female emperor penguins may try to adopt stray chicks or kidnap other females’ chicks when they feel too desperate to become mothers.

We hope you enjoyed exploring the life of the emperor penguin as much as we did. Please tell us in the comments which part you liked the most.

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