Our knowledge about penguins is more or less restricted to popular culture, which explains why the only thing that most of us know about them is that they are found in polar regions. Even the fact that they are only found in the Southern Hemisphere in the wild, is bound to take many people by surprise. There exist as many as 17 species of penguins in the world; the Emperor Penguin boasts of being the largest as well as heaviest among them.
Interesting Facts about the Emperor Penguin
The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is a species of penguin endemic to the ice-clad regions and frigid waters of Antarctica. Known for their fearless and curious nature, these penguins have been a subject of fascination for biologists on Antarctica expedition since quite some time now. The elegance of this bird, which earns it the name Emperor Penguin, and its astounding adaptation skills are just a few of the numerous amazing attributes that this species boasts of. Given below are more of such facts, which will add to your knowledge about this species.
Size and Appearance
With an average height of 45 inches (or roughly 4 ft.), the Emperor Penguin is the largest of the 17 penguins species that inhabit the planet. At the same time, it is also the heaviest with the average weight in this species ranging between 85 - 90 lbs―quite heavy for a bird. In terms of appearance, the Emperor is a classic example of the popular culture penguin with its black and white tuxedo. Other than that, this species is typically characterized by yellow ear patches and fading of dark plumage to brown color with the winter season coming to an end in November.
Geographical Range and Habitat
The Emperor Penguin population is restricted to the continent of Antarctica, in regions like the Ross Sea sector, Cape Washington, Halley Bay, etc. Even though occasional sighting of this species has been recorded in South Georgia and New Zealand, these regions are off the limits of its natural habitat. It is the only member of kingdom Animalia that spends the entire winter in cold, ice-clad regions of Antarctica, while other species move north to escape the brunt of harsh weather. The Emperors are often mistaken for King Penguins, whose population is restricted to the sub-Antarctic region.
Reproduction and Young Ones
More importantly, it is the only species that breeds during the harsh winters of Antarctica, which are typically characterized by temperatures as low as -80°F and winds blowing at the speed of 110 mph or more. Their reproductive cycle begins in March or April with courtship and the female lays a single egg, which roughly weighs 1 lb, somewhere in May or early June. Even at 1 lb, it only constitutes 2.3 percent of the mothers body weight, thus making it the smallest egg in proportion to mother's weight in kingdom Animalia. As soon as they lay their eggs, females leave the nesting site to go out to the sea in search of food. For this, they have to travel 50 - 80 miles―a journey which takes quite some time to complete.
In the absence of females, male penguins incubate the egg by placing it on their foot and covering it with the 'brood pouch'―a thick-feathered skin dangling from their belly. Male penguins don't eat anything in course of their babysitting escapade, so they lose a significant amount of weight during this period. They only go out at the sea for feeding when the females are back. When the females return, they bring back some food for the young ones by stacking it in their belly. This food is eventually regurgitated and fed to the newly hatched chicks. This continues till the onset of summer in December, when the ice starts melting and the young ones learn swimming and fishing to fend themselves. On an average, these penguins have a lifespan of around 20 years in the wild.
Diet and Hunting
Even though the diet in this species is mostly dominated by various species of fish that are found in open waters of the Southern Ocean, they are also known to resort to crustaceans (such as krill) and cephalopods (such as squids) when it comes to dietary habits. This is in stark contrast with most of the other penguin species, which mostly rely on surface krill. As the top layer of the oceans around Antarctica gets frozen due to extreme cold, these penguins have to dive into the water and go to the bottom of ocean to catch their prey. It's here that their ability to stay submerged inside the cold water for 15 - 18 minutes comes into play.
Predators and Vocalization
Though the cases are rare, the predator does become a prey when birds and aquatic mammals, with whom these penguins share their habitat, hunt and feed on their young ones. The list of predators of Emperor Penguins includes birds like Southern Giant Petrel and South Polar Skua, and mammals like the Leopard Seal and Orca. When vocalizing, these birds produce a distinct sound using two frequency bands, which can be easily identified by their partner and young ones. This mode of communication has an important role to play; especially when the nesting site is flooded with thousands of individuals or when there is a threat of some predator.
In order to protect themselves from harsh cold, Emperor Penguins huddle in large groups. Furthermore, they exchange places after a brief interval, with the individual at the center of the huddle moving to its periphery when it is considerably warm and allowing those individuals at the periphery to move to the center to protect each other from harsh conditions. Other adaptations in this species include their ability to thermoregulate (i.e., maintain core body temperature), ability to bring down their heart rate and shut down the non-essential organs, dense feathers (hundred feathers per inch), solid bones (as opposed to air-filled bones in other species), etc. All these adaptations play a crucial role in protecting them from the cold environment and high pressure conditions in their natural habitat.
It is estimated that around 400,000 - 450,000 Emperor Penguins exist on the planet today and therefore, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has enlisted the species as a Least Concern species. More recently, however, a sharp decline in their population was recorded in a few regions, with the needle of suspicion pointing towards loss of habitat as a result of climate change.