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.