Emperor Penguins breed in one of the most hostile places in the world, during the most hostile period of the year. They start their breeding cycle at the beginning of winter and incubate their single egg for two months in the heart of winter. Temperatures can plummet to well below -40ºC with hauling winds making the wind chill factor even lower. When the egg hatches, the males produce a little bit of milk-like fluid which is the first meal of the chick. Apart from that, the male doesn’t have anything to offer anymore after a 100 day fast. Hopefully, the female returns soon with a fresh load of fish and squid to feed the chick. In the beginning, the sea ice is far away (it’s the end of winter, so the sea ice has just reached its maximum extent) and only one parent can get away from chick as it is still too small to stay warm by himself. When the chick gets larger, it needs more food and is large enough to keep himself warm, so both parents can go to the ocean to feed.

Commuting Emperor Penguins

Now the reason for this strange timing of their breeding cycle becomes apparent. By the time the chick needs more food, the sea ice is breaking up, making the distance between the colony and open water shorter. Because of this, the foraging trips become shorter and shorter and therefore the parents can provide the chick with the food it needs. They need to be finished before the ice around the colony starts to break up and the only way to do this is to start their cycle during winter.


Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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