its name, the emperor penguin is the largest of all penguins
and one of the heaviest of all birds. Scientifically speaking, Aptenodytes means
'featherless diver' and alludes to the emperor penguin's astounding
ability to dive deeper than any other bird on earth. However,
contrary to what this name suggests, emperor penguins do have
feathers - 4 layers of them in fact to protect them from the
chilling Antarctic weather. But their feathers are so peculiar
looking, almost scale-like, that early observers mistook them
for something else.
the emperor penguin's species name, honours Johann Reinhold
Forster (1729-98). Forster was a naturalist on Captain James
Cook's voyage around the world and was one of the first people
ever to describe penguins.
aside, the emperor penguin is one of the 'coolest' birds on
the planet. Read on to find out more...
What do they look like?
a distance emperor penguins look like little men wearing tuxedos.
They are easily recognized by their black cap, blue-grey neck,
orange ear-patches and bill, yellow breast and white belly.
Emperor penguins may stand as tall as 1.15 m (3.8 ft) and can
weigh as much as 40 kg (88 lbs). They are the largest of the
17 penguin species and one of the heaviest birds on earth.
How does your size compare?
Emperor chicks (far
left in this picture) have a thick coat of grey down feathers.
On the head, the down is dark with a large white circle surrounding
each eye with a white band running between them under the chin.
It is thought that these head markings help parents find their
chicks in the darkness of the Antarctic winter. Once they lose
their down, young emperor penguins are purely black and white
in colour. After one year the collar feathers turn yellow and
as the penguin ages these feathers gradually change to a deeper
do they live?
penguins live off the coast of Antarctica. Unlike all other
penguins in the Antarctic, emperor penguins do not migrate
to warmer climates for the winter months. In fact, they are
the only penguin that is able to survive the harsh Antarctic
winters and breed during some of the worst weather conditions
gather in huge, crowded groups called rookeries or colonies.
There are approximately 45 colonies around Antarctica, that
range in size from 200 to 50,000 penguins. Colonies of emperors
gather on the sea ice (ice that forms naturally on the sea)
around Antarctica and use coastal ice cliffs and icebergs for
shelter. Amazingly, emperors are the only birds in the world
that can, and usually do, spend their whole life without ever
coming on land.
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Colony of Emperor Penguins
do they keep warm?
Against the bone
chilling Antarctic weather, the penguin's first defense is
its feathers, just like a mammal's is its fur. Close to the
skin, emperor penguins have a thick layer of woolly down, then
4 layers of scale-like feathers packed in at 80 feathers per
square inch, all covered in a greasy waterproof coating. Like
seals and whales, emperor penguins also have a thick layer
of fat or blubber below the skin for extra insulation.
In the Antarctic
in the dead of winter, temperatures can fall more than 40 degrees
below zero; freezing winds (called katabatic winds) blow off
the polar plateau and blizzards can reach speeds of 200km/hr.
Under these conditions, feathers and blubber just aren't good
enough and the emperor penguins must depend on each other to
survive. Unlike other types of penguins who are all territorial,
emperor penguins don't mind sharing their space with others.
To keep warm, emperors crowd together in large groups called
huddles or 'tortues' (turtles - as French investigators called
them). Inside a huddle the temperature can rise as much as
20 degrees above the outside air temperature. Each emperor
penguin takes its turn in the warmest and coldest spots in
the huddle. In a continuous circling whirlpool-like motion,
the birds on the edge of the huddle move in out of the wind
and cold as the birds in the centre make their way towards
the outside again. How's that for co-operation!?!
can't penguins fly?
It is true that penguins
cannot fly in the way that we think of most birds flying, that
is through the air. Penguins are so heavy and their wings so
small (relative to the rest of their body) that their wings
simply can't support them in the air. In the water though,
a penguin's wings and streamline figure are perfectly suited
for high speed travel. Underwater they are in flight, using
their wings for propulsion they look like birds do flying in
the air. As penguins get all of their food from the ocean and
spend nearly their whole lives on the water (except when they
are breeding) they really have no need to fly as other birds
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do they get around?
penguins are amazingly quick travellers with swimming speeds
reaching 3.5 -4 m/s. (To compare, most fur seals and sea lions
swim at speeds of less than 2m/s). When they aren't diving
for food, penguins break into a curious (and incredible for
a bird) behaviour called 'porpoising'. Swimming underwater
just below the surface they build up a good speed, then shoot
forwards into the air for some distance and drop back into
the water. There they build up speed once again and the whole
process is repeated.
Out of the water
penguins stand up straight, like funny little men, with their
webbed feet sticking out from underneath large bellies. On
such short little legs, a penguin's walk becomes more of a
waddle. At the best of times this makes for pretty slow travelling;
to cover great distances penguins flop on their bellies and
toboggan instead, using their wings to push them along the
do they eat?
may seem awkward on land, but there is no doubt that they are
strong and agile in the water. This makes them very good predators.
Near the top of the ocean food chain, emperor penguins feed
on fish, squid and krill. Those that prey on the emperors include
large marine mammals, and sharks in the spring time. Emperor
penguins are terrific divers and can dive deeper than any other
bird. Records show that emperors have plunged as deep as 535
m (~1750 ft) and can hold their breath up to 18 minutes. For
the most part though, emperors spend less than 5-6 minutes
at a time underwater diving down around 100m.
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do they reproduce?
have a most unique breeding cycle! The breeding season occurs
through the winter months and is coordinated with the forming
and the break up of sea ice. As crazy as this may seem, the
breeding season is actually perfectly coordinated so that the
chicks will be mature enough to leave their parents by the
summer, when conditions are better and there is more food around.
Mating pairs gather
on breeding colonies early in the winter just after the sea
ice has formed (around March). For the males, this is the beginning
of a 3-4 month ordeal during which time they will court, mate
and incubate an egg without a single meal. With this in mind,
the males make sure to stock up before leaving for the breeding
colony. Males often arrive on the colony so full that their
Around mid-May, the
female lays one egg and almost immediately passes it to the
male who will be in charge of incubation. Emperor penguin parents
do not build a nest; instead the male penguin holds the egg
on his feet and tucks it under a fold of his feathered skin
to keep it warm. For 65 wintery days the male stays to incubate
the egg through harsh Antarctic winter conditions. As all the
breeding males are in the same boat they huddle together, eggs
on feet, for warmth and survival.
the females are feeding out at sea, building up reserves of
food that she will later regurgitate for the new-born chick
soon to come. At the beginning of September, the female returns
from the ocean and finds her mate by the sound of his call.
The egg is carefully passed back from the male to the female
and almost immediately it begins to hatch. This egg transfer
takes no more than about ten seconds. If the egg or a newly
hatched chick were to fall on the ice, it would freeze to death
in two minutes. Now that the egg is hatched the male can finally
head out to feed and from this point on the parents take turns
going out to sea and returning to feed their offspring.
the weather improves and the chicks develop, they gather into
day-care centres called crèches while the penguin parents
are feeding at sea. Chicks can recognize their parents by the
sound of their call; when the pairs return from the water they
trumpet at each crèche until their chick runs out to
As summer nears and
the weather warms, the inshore ice begins to break up and food
becomes more abundant. Sometime between December and February,
the chicks downy coats are replaced with normal penguin feathers
and the chicks leave their parents to venture out on their
own. They must learn to swim and feed themselves for they will
soon head off the colony and out to sea where they will stay
for several years.
long do they live?
It is not known for
sure how long emperor penguins usually survive in the wild.
It is estimated however that emperor chicks that reach adulthood
have a good chance of surviving 20 years or more.
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can I find out more?
Check out these web
sites for more information and lots of cool pictures on the
emperor and other penguins...
University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Pages: Emperor Penguin
National Geographic's "Creature Feature": Emperor Penguin
Australian Antarctic Division | check here too!
Antarctic Connection Emperor Penguin page
and answers about sea birds
to marine biodiversity index