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 American Bison

The American Bison (Bison bison), also referred to as the American buffalo, is a large, even-toed ungulate which once roamed throughout the vast grasslands of North America in colossal herds but almost went extinct in the late 19th century due to bovine diseases and excessive commercial hunting for their meat and hides.

American Bison

Bison are herbivorous mammals which feed on grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. They regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion. Males (bulls) can weigh up to 1,000 kilograms (a tonne) whereas females (cows) don’t usually exceed 550 kilograms.

American bison live in relatively small herds but come together to form much larger herds during the summer mating season. They have a thick, dark-brown winter coat and a shorter and lighter summer coat which helps them to stay comfortable in the varying temperatures of North America.

American Bison 2

Culturally, the American buffalo was vitally important to the indigenous people of North America and they utilised each and every component of the bison’s body. For instance, their fat was used for cooking oil and soaps; their horns were used for cups, spoons and ladles; their tails were used for decorations, whips and brushes and their tongue was considered the best part of the meat. Before the 1800s, approximately 60 million bison roamed the plains of N.America but during the 19th century, settlers slaughtered over 50 million bison for food, sport and to deprive the native populations of their fundamental cornerstone. At the start of the 20th century, only a few hundred individuals survived the brutal massacre. Conservation areas were setup to help preserve this mistreated species and now their population is up to around 500,000. However, this number is still dwarfed by their original population and they are still considered a near-threatened species by the IUCN. Subsequently, these conservation projects must be continued and supported by us so the American bison may return to its former range.