International Penguin Day occurs on April 25, but don’t confuse this day, which marks the start of the Antarctic penguins migration period, with Penguin Awareness Day, which takes place on January 20. There seems to be no reason for the date of Penguin Awareness day, but International Penguin Day was started years ago when researchers in the Naval Weapons Center in California first observed the migration patterns of Antarctic penguins. Personally, I can’t think of anyway to celebrate my favorite birds in all their formal-wearing glory then to go into a little detail about the birds and their fascinating lives. While the holiday marks the migration period of Antarctic penguins, we at Neatorama don’t like to discriminate, so we’ll be talking about all penguins in general rather than focusing on just those from the very far south.
They’re Almost All Southerners
Almost every wild penguin lives somewhere in the southern hemisphere with the exception of the Galapagos Penguin, which lives in the area it is named for. While many people envision penguins living in frigid conditions, only a few actually live so far south and many live in rather temperate zones. For the most part, the larger penguins live in cooler areas and smaller ones live closer to the equator. Rock Hopper Penguin image via Ben Tubby [Flickr]
Back In The Day
That’s not how it’s always been though. Prehistoric species of penguins were sprawled across the southern hemisphere with no distribution based on size. One giant penguin species lived only 1250 miles south of the equator. Prehistoric Penguins were so different in size that there was even a 6 foot tall penguin called the Nordenskjoeld's Giant Penguin and a 173 pound species called the New Zealand Giant Penguin.
They’re Just Big Boned
These days though, the largest species of penguin is Emperor Penguin, which grows to around 3 and a half feet tall and 75 pounds. These are arguably the most famous penguins around as they are not only the largest, but some of the small handful of penguins that live in Antarctica. You may remember these guys as the stars of March of the Penguins. The species is also unique for being the only penguin to breed in the middle of the harsh Antarctic winter at temperatures as low as -40 degrees. They are also the only penguins that leave the incubation duties to only one sex and one of only two species to lay only one egg at a time --most deliver two at a time. The females lay an egg and then the males incubate the egg on their feet while the females return to the sea over the next two months to feed. The males huddle in a large circle and rotate each individual’s time in the center. When the eggs hatch, the males have normally fasted for over 115 days. When the mom’s return, the males leave the new-born chick with their partner and take their turn to go feed. When the chicks are strong enough, they huddle amongst themselves for warmth while the mothers and fathers feed and eventually they begin to grow their adult feathers and join the feeding process around the summer time. While all penguin species have a somewhat high mortality rate amongst the young, Emperor Penguins have the highest rate of death during the chick’s first year. In fact, 90% of all of the chicks will die during this time. Image via ianduffy [Flickr]
Don’t Count Out The Tinier Species
On the other side of the spectrum is the Little Blue Penguin (a.k.a. the Fairy Penguin), which grows only 16 inches tall and weighs a little over 2 pounds. These little ones are much less famous than their massive Emperor cousins, even so, you may recognize these little ones as the inspiration for the Linux logo –the creator of Linux was bitten by a Little Penguin while in Australia and the memory stayed with him through his life. Because they are so small, they are not well adapted to frigid weather and they instead live in Australia and New Zealand and do better in areas free from cats and foxes. They have also been spotted in Chile and South Africa, but researchers aren’t sure if they are part of a colony or somehow ended up in the countries. Little Blue Penguin image via CrazyCh3m [Flickr]. Linux image via Larry Ewing
They Stay Faithful…To Some Extent
Penguins tend to be monogamous each year, but they will often find a new mate each consecutive year. In species such as the Emperor Penguin, the lack of year-to-year monogamy (only a 15% rate) is believed to be due to environmental pressures that limit the amount of time they have to search for their past partners. Some of the penguins in warmer climates, like the Little Blue Penguin, do stay loyal to their partners until one of the mates dies. Females are the ones who select their mating partner and in many cases, females will compete for an attractive male partner. As for the eggs themselves, penguins have some o the smallest proportioned eggs of all birds when compared with the size of the parents. The Little Blue Penguin lays eggs that are only 4.7% of its weight and the Emperor Penguin’s eggs are only 2.3% of their total weight. The eggs also have some of the thickest shells, which weigh between 10-16% of the egg’s weight (it takes the Emperor Penguin chicks about 2-3 days to hatch out of their shells) and they have some of the largest yolk ratios of all birds --the yolk takes up 22-31% of the egg volume. Image via Jerzy Strzelecki [Wikipedia]
They’ve Got Each Other’s Backs
Aside from mating, penguins have a very high level of social interaction and all penguins communicate through visual and vocal displays. Their vocal calls not only help the penguins choose mates, but also lets them find their mate and their nest when they come back from feeding. The penguin females often show a great level of empathy for one another; when one mother loses a chick, she will often attempt to take one from another’s nest, but many of the nearby females will usually help defend the mother.
Humans Also Have Their Backs
Penguins have a lot of human friends and all species are protected even though some species are at no risk of extinction in the near future. Perhaps part of the reason we connect with the birds, besides their inherent adorableness, is the fact that they are rarely afraid of humans. Many species of penguins, particularly those from the Antarctic, have no fear of humans at all because they have so few predators on land. While seals attack by the water, the few air and land predators penguins sea will only eat chicks and eggs. For this reason, people who visit penguin habitats are often surprised to see the birds will often approach them out of pure curiosity. This comes in handy in zoo and research facilities because the researchers can often get close to the birds without having to worry about throwing off the animal’s natural behavior patterns. For one specific African penguin living at the California Academy of Sciences, this met an additional benefit when he started to go bald, which left him shivering in his tank. The keepers first tried to warm Pierre up with a heat lamp, but he still couldn’t enter the water, which is a major part of any penguins life (most species spend anywhere from 50-70% of their lives in the water). Eventually, one of the biologists, Pam Schaller, realized that if wet suits keep humans warm in frigid temperatures, it might just work for little Pierre. The modified suit worked brilliantly and Pierre was quite happy to have his life back as he frolicked with his 19 friends in the tank’s pool. Image via Roux [Wikipedia]
They Love To Get Wet
The reason poor Pierre was so cold when he started losing his feathers comes down to a unique aspect of penguin anatomy. The birds aren’t kept warm with a layer of blubber (although the Emperor Penguins are benefited by being so large), but mostly by their waterproof feathers. The feathers trap air, which insulates their body and helps them to float. While they can’t use their wings to fly, they instead work as flippers and penguins are great swimmers accordingly. Their style of swimming looks surprisingly like flight in other birds and they can reach speeds of 17 miles per hour, although most stay closer to 5 miles per hour during their swims. Most penguins do not swim very deeply and only dive for a minute or two, but the Emperor Penguin has been recorded going as deep as 1,800 feet for up to 22 minutes. No matter how deep they swim though, penguins have to return to the surface to breathe and most of the smaller species will leap in and out of the water like porpoises to breathe. While underwater, penguins occasionally play, but they mostly swim to eat. Their main sources of food are krill, fish and squid. While it seems like their stark color contrasts would make them an easy target for underwater predators, since they largely stay near the top of the water surface, all the underwater predators (like orcas, seals, sea lions and sharks) can see is a white belly, which blends in with the water surface. From above, their dark backs help them blend in with the depths of the sea. Penguin’s eyes are well adapted for seeing under water as, well as the rest of their bodies. In fact, a supraorbital gland allows them to filter excess salt from their blood stream and release it from their nasal passages. In a way, it’s quite fortunate that penguins have so few predators in the land and air. When they cruise on the land, their wings and tails help them keep balance, but they waddle quite a bit. Many penguins will also toboggan along the snow to help them move quickly and with minimal energy. Image via ken2754@Yokohama [Flickr] Sources: Discovery, Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, Seaworld