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15 Interesting Facts About Emperor Penguins

Updated on November 23, 2017
Alex Anghel profile image

Alex has been a biologist for 13 years. She obtained her Diploma at University of Pitesti.

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Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is for sure one of the most studied, photographed and scientifically analyzed penguins.

Let’s get to know a little more these graceful birds. Here are 15 interesting facts about them:

  1. Emperor penguins are one of the most unique and truly beautiful and amazing birds. Their plumage have the distinct tuxedo look, with black on the back, bright white on the front and colorful yellow or orange feathers around their necks and heads. The black and white coloration actually serves as camouflage.

  2. Out off all the penguin species, emperor penguins are the tallest with an average of 115 cm. Still, the biggest penguin specie living today would have been dwarfed by the colossus penguin which lived 37 millions of years ago. Fossils recently recovered in the Antarctic peninsula revealed that it used to be home for a giant penguin. It was 2 meters tall and weighted 115 kilograms.

  3. During the arctic winter, they are the only animal specie to inhabit Antarctica open space, where temperature can drop to as low as -60°C. To survive this harsh climate they are equipped with special adaptations: a good reserve of insulating body fat, multiple layers of scale-like feathers, proportionally smaller beaks and flippers, preventing heat loss. Their arteries and veins are situated close together allowing them to recycle their own body heat.

  4. Breeding period starts with the beginning of the winter in Antarctica. They choose very dramatic sites: the most desolate,coldest and windiest places of the earth during the season of 24 hour darkness. These royal birds traverse up to 80 km to reach stable breeding grounds on the thick Arctic ice. Emperor penguins are monogamous during each breeding season. Female lays her egg in May or June, then she passes it to the male, before journeying to the sea to feed. No nest is build and the egg is incubated on the feet of the parents and covering it with feathered skin („brood pouch”). In the next couple months, the male emperor penguins must cope with the worst weather conditions on the planet, all the while eating nothing. They survive by huddling together for warmth, very unusual behavior for adults of other penguin species which are usually aggressively territorial. They take turns moving towards the inside of the pack, where it is warmer, thereby sustaining the entire group. Males just sit and wait and protect their egg (later the chick) for over 120 days (average 115), during this time they will lose about 40% of their body weight. They use less energy when asleep which they do so as long as possible, it is not unusual for emperor penguins to sleep for 20 or more hours a day under these conditions - even up to 24 hours a day, to conserve their food supplies.The females return in July, bringing with them food in their bellies which they regurgitate for the chicks to eat. The females now take over babysitting duty, leaving the males to head to the ocean for their own fishing session.

  5. After a few months, the juveniles leave the shelter of their mother’s brood pouches and the chicks huddle together in creches for warmth and protection, whilst both parents head to the ocean to fish. In December, the weather warms in Antarctica, breaking up the ice that the penguins occupy, bringing open waters closer to the nesting site. The penguin chicks become independent during the height of the summer food supply and so are able to survive better.

  6. These magnificent birds are super swimmers and impressive divers. Emperor penguins glide through the water with great speed and agility. Their aerodynamic bodies and strong flippers make them excellent swimmers, reaching speeds of 3.4 m/s. Some call them the Olympic divers of the bird world. Emperors can stay underwater for over 22 minutes at a time and can dive over 550m as they hunt for food. The deepest recorded dive was 564 meters and the longest dive was nearly 28 minutes. They have been found to have: an increased ability to store oxygen in the body, the ability to tolerate low levels of oxygen in the body and the ability to tolerate the effects of pressure.

  7. Emperors are adapted to travel in this extreme habitat. On the ice masses waddle along at a speed of about 2.5 km per hour, using strong claws on their feet to help grip the surface. If they fiind a good downslope, they also slide on their sleek bellies.

  8. They can tell each other apart! When you have a colony of hundreds of thousands of birds almost identical and they are vocalizing all in the same time, it can be difficult to find you family. For this reason the emperors have developed unique voices, recognizing each other. They produce distinctive tones that their breeding pairs and even their offspring can identify.

  9. Emperor penguins stay in and around the Antarctic ice their entire lives. They could possibly be the only bird in the world that never walk on solid ground.

  10. The emperor penguin feed mostly on Antarctic silverfish, but their menu includes also other fish, and some species of squid. An adult penguin eats 2-3 kg per day. When they need to build up their store of fat, before a molt or at the beginning of breeding season, the food quantity ingested is doubled. Each chick needs about 42 kg of food from each parent.

  11. Emperors are near the top of the Southern Ocean’s food chain and have few natural predators on land due to the hostile conditions of their habitat. Emperor Penguin chicks are preyed upon by other birds like the Southern Giant Petrels and South Polar Skua. When they return to the ocean, adults are preyed upon by Killer Wales and Leopard Seals.

  12. Some females who have lost their hatchlings “steal” the chick of another couple or take an orphan and keep it for a few hours or days, leaving it later, which causes the chick to die either victim of predation or starvation. Scientists have not found any logical explanation for this behavior yet.

  13. Hard to believe if you look at them, but these elegant birds can climb steep ice cliffs. British and Australian scientists discovered more emperor penguin colonies on ice shelves.

  14. Emperor penguins are considered near threatened and their populations are expected to decline rapidly in years to come. They are heavily dependent on sea ice, therefore, are sensitive to changes in sea ice concentration due to global warming.

  15. The average lifespan of emperor penguin is typically 20 years in the wild, despite the fact that they live in very extreme conditions where the cold could be unbearable for most animals living on this planet.

© 2017 Alex Anghel

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    • Alex Anghel profile image
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      Alex Anghel 3 weeks ago from Romania

      Thank you very much for your kind words. That means a lot to me! Your work is impressive!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing all the interesting facts about these fascinating birds. I enjoyed reading about them very much.