Emperor Penguins: Uniquely Armed for Antarctica

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The sun disappears completely once winter falls in Antarctica in early May. The only light comes from the moon, circling just above the horizon. That's when emperor penguins move onto the ice. Their airtight feathers will become ever more crucial as winter howls around them.

Scientists bundle up in giant parkas and goggles to keep an eye on goings-on. Giant PistenBully machines—vehicles with tank-like treads that are often used to maintain ski slopes—allow them to motor around on the sea ice and fit penguins with gizmos to measure the animals' vital statistics.

"Underneath their feathers, it can be 30° to 35° Celsius [86° to 95° Fahrenheit], while the outside air is minus 20° or minus 30° Celsius [minus 4° or minus 22° Fahrenheit]," Ponganis said. "That's more than a 60° temperature difference separated by a layer of feathers that is maybe a half an inch (one centimeter) thick."

That astonishing insulation is critical because not only do emperor penguins rear their young in the extreme Antarctic environment—they do it while fasting. Once they hit the ice, there will be no opportunity to feed.

Within a matter of weeks, the female lays her egg and passes it off to the male, allowing her to head for the sea to feed. The male promptly tucks the egg into a small pouch over his feet. He will balance it there until it hatches. Inside the pouch, the egg is kept at a toasty 95° Fahrenheit (35° Celsius) the average body temperature of an adult.

Rarely moving, never eating, standing in frigid cold, the fathers-to-be will lose half their body weight incubating their egg over the next two months.

The key to surviving this impossible feat is the huddle.

Birds of a Feather

Most male penguins are known for being obstreperous, territorial squawkers. Not emperor penguins. They huddle in tight knit groups that can number in the thousands while tending their eggs.

The largest colony is on Coulman Island in the Ross Sea, where as many as 25,000 males hunker down.

Huddling keeps them warm. There can be a 20° to 30° temperature difference between ambient air inside the huddle compared to the shrieking cold outside it. Since the animals don't have to work as hard to stay warm, their metabolism slows down and they burn less fat. As a result, their ability to survive the fast increases.

Infancy in a Shrieking Gale

Although scientists like Ponganis and Ainley have discovered much about how the birds thrive in this harsh climate, that doesn't answer the question of why they choose to raise their young during the raging Antarctic winter.

"The reason that they do it is for the stability of sea ice. They are breeding and rearing their young on ice that will melt come summer," Ponganis said. "Starting in January, their colony sites will begin breaking up into open ocean." Once the chick is born around early August, the mother returns from feeding at sea to give dad a break. For the next five months, he and his partner will take turns regurgitating fish and squid to the chick.

Once the sun starts heating up the water and the ice begins to dissipate, the emperors leave their chicks, forcing them to fend for themselves for the first time.

"December is the start of the Antarctic summer, when food is most available, thus making it as easy as possible for their chicks to forage," Ainley said.

As the ocean swells start tearing apart the ice, the young chicks become increasingly agitated. Once it's clear their parents are not returning, usually in the first week of January, the chicks head from a world of collapsing white into a dark and frigid sea.

For their parents, a few months of gorging begins in preparation for the following May, when the ritual of rearing young in the most forbidding climate on Earth begins anew.

For more on penguins, tune in to this week's Living Wild. The show airs Tuesday, March 30, at 8 p.m. ET/PT in the United States and is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

Got a high-speed connection? Watch Living Wild video clips in streaming video.

Related Stories
Creature Features: Emperor Penguins
Ice Buildup Hampers Penguin Breeding in Antarctica
Patagonia Penguins Make a Comeback

Related Web Sites
National Geographic Channel
Be The Creature—Explore A Creature!
Penguin Ranch
Penguin Files: Penguin Researchers in the Ross Sea, Antarctica
U.S. Antarctic Program
McMurdo Station

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