The Emperor Penguin

Running with the Dynasties theme, I decided that today I would write about the world’s largest penguin – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is a near-threatened species which lives in huge colonies on the Antarctic ice and in the surrounding waters. They are the only penguin which breeds in winter and during their breeding season they form breeding colonies with thousands of individuals.

Emperor Penguin 2

Adult males and females are similar in size, reaching up to around 45 inches tall. They have a fascinatingly beautiful plumage with a black head and back juxtaposing their white belly. Most noticeably though, they have those distinctive, bright-yellow ear patches which slowly fade into a paler colour further down the penguin’s chest.

These penguins have a tough time caring for their young. During the bitter polar winters, females will lay a single egg and males will incubate this egg whilst the females go out in search of food for the youngster. Their diet consists predominantly of fish, crustaceans and molluscs but the proportions of this prey will vary between different areas.

Emperor Penguin
The breeding season is a gruelling but rewarding time for these penguins.

For me, the most captivating thing about these birds it their wonderfully unique adaptations – a testament to the unbelievable power of evolution. First of all, a structural adaptation is the shape of their body; it is perfectly streamlined to glide through the ocean with little resistance. Moreover, to cope with the freezing polar temperatures, they have evolved a thick layer of fat and dense feathers which help to reduce heat loss. However, their thick blubber impedes their movement on land – that’s partly why they waddle around like drunk teenagers. One of their most obvious adaptations is the way they huddle together to conserve their warmth and escape from the winds of winter. The emperor penguins take turns being on the perilous edge of this crowd so no one is left exposed to the elements for too long.

Yet another adaptation is the way they survive the immense ocean pressures when they go for deep dives, these dives can last for over 20 minutes and these penguins can plummet down to 1,850 feet deep (deeper than any other bird)! During these dives, the emperor penguin’s oxygen use is greatly reduced as their heart rate drops from 70 beats per minute at resting rate to 20 beats per minute. In addition to this, their non-essential organs are shut down, meaning oxygen can be focused on their vital organs, allowing for longer dives. I could go on about this bird’s magnificent adaptations but I would be here for quite a while because there are so many.

Emperor Penguin 3
When underwater, these birds are agile torpedoes.

Sadly, in 2012, the emperor penguin was uplisted from least concern to near-threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their threats include habitat loss, industrial fisheries, disease, human disturbance (particularly unsustainable tourism) and most significantly, climate change. Global warming is melting the sea ice where they live. The current loss of their habitat is not sustainable and it is not slowing down. The protection and conservation of these penguins, and all other threatened species in fragile habitats, requires a global effort.

Tonight, at 8pm (UK time, GMT+0) the second episode of Dynasties airs where Sir David Attenborough will be narrating a no-doubt thrilling story about emperor penguins and the daily struggles they endure on the continent of Antarctica.

The Andean Condor

One of the world’s largest flying birds, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) can reach a wingspan of over 3 metres (around 10ft) and males can weigh up to 15kg! As the name suggests, these vultures are found throughout the Andes mountain range in South America where they feed on carrion. As scavengers, these birds have a vital ecological task by ensuring nutrients is recycled back into the food chain. Andean condors also have one of the longest lifespans of any bird, living up to 70 years in some cases.

Andean Condor 2
A male Andean condor with a large crest on its head.

These birds have an exceptionally unique appearance which varies between the different sexes. Their plumage is mostly black with a distinctive white collar around their neck; adult males have white patches on their wings and a dark reddish-black crest on the crown of their heads. As with nearly all vultures, their head and neck are bald which is an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the skin to be exposed to the sterilising effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes.

Andean Condor 3
A male condor in flight, displaying his bright, white wing feathers.

Their talons are long yet relatively blunt and weak, instead they are adapted to walking rather than catching prey. Instead, their main weapon is their sharply hooked bill which allows them to tear rotting meat. In order to locate their preferred carrion, they will use their fantastic sense of sight or by following other scavengers, such as turkey-vultures.

Andean Condor
A female Andean condor with a rather fancy white neck ruff.

The Andean condor is considered a near threatened species (their main threat is habitat loss) but their population currently seems to be stable – large populations can be found in national parks across western South America and quite a few captive breeding programs have been set up.

The Magnificent Frigatebird

The largest species of frigatebird, the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificensis a seabird found over tropical and sub-tropical waters around the Americas. Interestingly, there are also populations on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Frigatebirds endure infrequent feeding opportunities and long hours in flight which has caused them to inherit a low breeding rate and the longest period of parental care of any bird.

Magnificent Frigatebird
A male magnificent frigatebird attempting to woo a female.

In terms of appearance, the magnificent frigatebird has a blackish-brown plumage, extensive narrow wings and a recognisable forked tail which look like little legs when they’re soaring in the sky. However, the most prominent feature, and the feature many people associate with the frigatebird, is their intensely vivid, red gular sac. This is just an area of red, featherless skin which connects the lower mandible of the bird’s beak to its neck, and is only present in male frigatebirds. Males inflate this red sac in order to attract a mate – a clever, evolutionary advantage which looks undeniably impressive.

Females are slightly larger than males and do not posses a red gular sac, instead, they have a white breast and belly. They are coastal birds so their diet consists mainly of fish, but frigatebirds don’t usually dive for their meal, they feed on fish taken in flight from the ocean’s surface (often flying fish). These birds may also obtain a free meal by harassing other coastal birds to force them to regurgitate their food and then diving and catching the stolen meal before it hits the surface of the water – a nasty but effective tactic. Depending on their location and availability of food, the magnificent frigate bird may also feed on squid, jellyfish, and crustaceans.

Magnificent Frigatebird 2
A female frigatebird looking like a kite.

A recent genetic study of different magnificent frigatebird populations found that the Galapagos population is genetically distinct from the other populations and has not exchanged any genes with their mainland counterpart for several hundred thousand of years, they are so genetically distinct that the Galapagos population could even be classified as its own species. If they were classified as a separate species, the Galapagos species would be highly vulnerable to extinction since the population of Galapagos frigatebirds stands as around 2,000 individuals. For now though, they are all classified under the same species – the magnificent, magnificent friagtebird.

The Scarlet Ibis

Today I felt like writing about a beautiful, exotic bird, and with its vivid red plumage, the scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) is definitely worthy for this description. They obtain their stunning scarlet pigment from eating crustaceans (mainly shrimp and red shellfish) but their diet also heavily consists of insects. Their distinctive long, thin bills are cleverly used like a probe, to rummage for food in mud or under plants.

Scarlet Ibis
What an extraordinary scarlet plumage!

This wading bird inhabits a vast range across northern South America and many Caribbean islands. They live in flocks of 30 or more and are highly sociable birds, often they will congregate into much larger flocks with thousands of individuals creating a magical sea of radiant crimson. These flocks can be found in wetlands and other marshy habitats like rainforests and mangroves. Interestingly, they may also assemble with other South American wading birds such as spoonbills, storks, egrets, herons and ducks which give them the advantage of safety in numbers.

The scarlet ibis is a national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, along with the Cocrico (Ortalis ruficauda).  Although adults are almost entirely scarlet coloured (the tips of their wings are an inky black colour), juveniles are a mix of grey, brown and white but their plumage gradually changes as they consume more red crustaceans. Their phenomenal colouration makes them the only red shorebird in the world.

Scarlet Ibis 3
Crimson missiles soaring over mangroves.

Thankfully, their population is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and their numbers are plentiful in many areas. However, in certain local populations they are in decline and Brazil considers them an endangered species. Therefore, we should still show our support for this marvellous species.

The Kakapo

The only flightless parrot, the kakapo (Strigops habroptila) is also the heaviest parrot and appears to be an amalgamation of an owl and a parrot. Kakapos are large, nocturnal birds which are endemic to small islands around New Zealand and with a lifespan of almost 100 years, it is one of the longest living birds! The kakapo is a truly unique bird, being the only member of the genus Strigops, and they were once widespread throughout New Zealand before humans arrived. However, they have since become critically endangered due to the introduction of foreign mammals to the country which prey on this feathered wonder.

Kakapo 2

This bird can be easily identified by its moss-green plumage, dotted with patches of yellow and black, and its disc-like face (resembling the face of owls). They also have a large grey beak which they use to consume their strictly vegetarian diet made up of leaves, flowers, bark, roots, bulbs, fruit and seeds. During their mating seasons (which are summer and autumn), males make loud booming calls to attract females. Currently, they live on forested islands around New Zealand, but they used to live in a range of vegetated habitats.

In April 2018, the adult population of kakapos was recorded as a mere 149 individuals, making it one of the most endangered animals alive today. Their tragic story began when the first human settlers arrived in New Zealand (the Maori people) hundreds of years ago. But their downfall grew worse when European invaders arrived, bringing foreign predators with them such as cats, rats, ferrets and stoats that killed and ate the kakapo’s eggs and chicks. By the late 20th century, less than 50 kakapos remained in New Zealand. Conservation efforts finally began and in 2012 the surviving population was moved to three separate, predator-free islands where they could live their life without human disruption.

Kakapo

Thankfully, there is still hope for the kakapo and conservation efforts are steadily improving their population. As I have learned more about the kakapo, I am reminded of the tragic dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and how they were driven to extinction from the island of Mauritius when humans introduced foreign animals and began hunting the defenceless birds. However, we have the power to avoid a repeat of the tale of the dodo, we can hopefully help these birds and show that we have learned from our past mistakes. Like the dodo, the kakapo has uniquely evolved to be perfectly adapted to its predator-free, vegetated island habitat and it is awful to see their adaptations being used against them.

The Galapagos Penguin

The only species of penguin to breed in tropical waters, the Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to the Ecuadorian archipelago known as the Galapagos islands. They are also the only penguin which lives north of the equator in the wild. They can survive in their tropical habitat due to the cool waters brought about by the Humboldt current which flows along the western coast of South America.

Galapagos Penguin 2

This flightless bird is the second smallest species of penguin (after the aptly named Little Penguin) and nests in rock crevices found across their island habitat. They can be identified by their bands of black and white colouration. As with all species which live on the Galapagos islands, this penguin has been forced to adapt to this extremely niche environment. Their populations are mainly found along the coast of Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island where they feed on small fish, sardines and crustaceans. When in the water, their small size makes them a tasty meal for sharks, fur seals and sea lions but the penguin’s nimble and swift nature can often help them escape their doom.

Galapagos Penguin

One of the main struggles for the Galapagos penguin is the warm weather and blazing sun so they have evolved to use methods of thermoregulation to help them survive. For instance, they stretch out their flippers and hunch forward to keep the sun from shining on their feet, since they can lose heat from their flippers due to the blood flow there. This is an example of a behavioural adaptation which makes them better suited to their environment. They also pant, using evaporation to cool their throat and airways. Although, if they get too cold, they can always go for a quick swim in the cold ocean waters surrounding their home. Cleverly, they lay their eggs in deep rock crevices to protect them from the hot weather.

Galapagos Penguin 3Sadly, this unique bird is classified as an endangered species by the IUCN, and the WWF estimates that their population is fewer than 2000 individuals, meaning the Galapagos penguin has the smallest population size of any penguin species. Threats to their species include over-fishing, oil-spills, becoming caught in fishing nets and the introduction of foreign animals to the archipelago such as dogs, cats, and rats which attack the penguins and annihilate their nests.

The Alagoas Curassow

Extinct in the wild, the Alagoas curassow (Mitu mitu) is a species of bird which used to be found in forests across northeastern Brazil but now they can only be found in captivity. This pheasant-like bird was last recorded in the wild in the late 1980s. There are around 130 individuals, split into two separate captive populations.

Alagoas Curassow

They have a glossy, black plumage with a dark, blue-purple hue. The tips of their feathers are brown in colour which gives them their chestnut-coloured underbelly. They also have a large, bright red bill which it uses to consume a diet of fruit and nuts.

In 2000 there were only 44 alagoas curassows but now there are over 130 individuals. However, it is estimated that 35% of these birds are hybrids with razor-billed curassows (Mitu tuberosum). A reintroduction plan is being organised but there are many potential problems due to this species’ massively reduced gene pool and there are human threats (for instance, deforestation) which have limited possible reintroduction zones.

Alagoas Curassow 2

Alagoas curassows have been eliminated from the wild due to deforestation in northeastern Brazil since forests were destroyed to make way for sugarcane plantations. Pesticides used in sugarcane fields had a detrimental effect on their remaining habitat, and hunting also played a part in their demise. Deforestation and poaching almost led this bird to extinction and illegal hunting would be another concern if they were reintroduced into the wild. It is deeply saddening to think about how humans have caused this bird to become extinct in the wild but hopefully we can learn from this tragedy and one day allow this bird to roam freely through the lowland forests of Brazil once again.