Antarctic birds: Adélie Penguin

The last of the three brushtail penguin species is the Adélie Penguin. In contrast to the Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, is the Adélie a true Antarctic penguin. They are depending on sea ice cover for their feeding and can only be found breeding on or near Antarctica. On the Antarctica Peninsula, we only find colonies in the Antarctic Sound or south of the Lemaire Channel, though every now and then single individuals venture slightly further north and end up in other colonies.

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Adélie Penguin

With the Antarctic Peninsula warming, Adélie Penguins seem to struggle. The numbers on the western side of the Peninsula (where most expedition cruises visit) have dropped dramatically. When Jean-Baptiste Charcot visited Petermann Island in 1909, his lead biologist, Louis Gain, made the first census of penguins on the island. During this time, 95% of the colony consisted of Adélie Penguins and only 5% of Gentoos. In 1994, 60% was Gentoo and only 40% Adélie. When I first visited the colony in 2005, I think around 90% was Gentoo, with approximately 10% Adélies left. Nowadays, there are only a few tens of Adélies left, with several thousand of Gentoo Penguins. Similar trends can be found in other mixed colonies on the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

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Adélie Penguin colony at Franklin Island, Ross Sea

However, despite the grim look at the Western Antarctic Peninsula, Adélie Penguins, in general, are doing quite well. As said before, unlike Gentoo Penguins, Adélies are breeding all around Antarctica, and most colonies are doing well. In most locations, there is still enough sea ice for them to use as a feeding platform, and they don’t have to compete with other species. In some places, like on Franklin Island in the Ross Sea, massive colonies can be found (as seen in the picture above).

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Adélie Penguins in a snowstorm

As Adélie Penguins are the breeding species of penguin in the world that is found breeding the furthest south, they are adapted to having a very short breeding season. The males arrive in the colony very early in the season, before the melt of the snow, so they can get everything ready and start breeding as soon as the females have arrived and the snow has melted. In mixed colonies of Adélies and Gentoos, one can easily see this as the Adélies chicks fledge well before the Gentoos. The downside of this early start and more hostile environment is of course that they have to cope sometimes with a lot harsher conditions, something they seem to deal with very well.

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A flying penguin?

Finally, Adelies are also black and white, but with a dark face and a lovely, subtle white ring around the eye.

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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