A short break in my Arctic Species series, as today is World Penguin Day. Time to have a look at one of my favourite Antarctic species: the Emperor Penguin. Maybe not the most colourful one, but the one with one of the most dramatic stories of all birds. As they are big birds, an adult can grow up to 1.3m, it takes more as one Antarctic summer to raise their chicks. The second tallest species, the King Penguin, has a similar problem. Their solution is to have their chicks spent the winter and finish their breeding cycle the next year. For Emperor Penguins, this is not a solution, as it would mean the chicks would have to survive hauling storms at temperatures of -40ºC (or F for that matter). So Emperor Penguins took a different approach to solve the problem.
Emperor Penguins arrive at the colony at the end of summer and start breeding in mid-May. After they lay the single egg, the female hands it over to the male and heads to the ocean to feed herself. Incubation takes around 60 days, and the chicks are born somewhere in mid-July. This is in the midst of the Antarctic winter, and the males have to survive some of the coldest and windiest conditions of our planet. Shortly after the eggs have hatched, the females return with food for the chicks. In the beginning, they have to take turns feeding the chick and protecting it, but when the chick gets bigger, it doesn’t need protection anymore, and both parents can get food for the chick. In the beginning, these foraging trips are long as the sea ice has grown a lot during winter, but later the ice melts resulting in much shorter trips. This is good news as at this point the chick needs a lot of food. By mid-December, the chicks are large enough to feed for themselves, and the adults start their annual moult.
Today also a scientific article was picked up by the media about the Emperor Penguin colony at Halley Bay. This colony used to be the second largest colony in the world (after one in the Ross Sea) but disappeared almost overnight, with no breeding success in three years. Most likely an early break up of the ice around the colony was the cause of this decline. Why this sea ice suddenly broke up earlier as usual, isn’t clear, though the authors make a link with a strong El Nino in those years, which may be caused by the man-made climate change.
What happened to those penguins? About half of them have moved to another colony 55km away, but the other half is still missing. Even though this might not directly be linked to climate change, it is worrying that this colony can disappear so quickly. In another study, this colony was estimated to be relatively stable and not expected to be too much affected by climate change. Apparently, that doesn’t mean those colonies aren’t threatened at all.