Great Auk <--------
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Emperor Penguins
The Regal Emperor penguins are a distinctive group of pelagic birds, spread widely across the cooler waters of southern oceans. Emperor Penguins are often the ‘Classic’ Penguin specie when people hear the name, along with King Penguins and Adelie Penguins, they are representative of the whole group. The Emperors are the tallest and largest of the 17 living species of penguins, growing up to 1.15 meters tall and weighing up to 40 kg. Emperors are the largest of all diving birds. They spend most of the life time under water, but despite their aquatic skills, they are the least agile bird on land, due to the lack of activity on solid land.

The Emperor Penguin was first discovered over 130 years ago by Johann Reinhold Forster, a naturalist who lived during 1729 to 1798. Although they were discovered then, the first breeding colony wasn’t discovered until 1902 by Lt. Reginald Skelton who was on Scott’s 1902 – 1904 Discovery Expedition. New colonies were still being discovered as late as 1986.

Habitat and Ecology

Emperor Penguins swimming under water

They are endemic to Antarctica, mostly concentrated in the Weddell Sea, Dronning Maud Land, Enderby, Princess Elizabeth Lands and the Ross Sea, where 98% of the land is covered by ice and an average of at least 1.6 Km in thickness.

They do not build nests, nor defend their breeding territory. They huddle together using their warmth when they incubate their eggs, and is the only penguin specie to breed in winter.

Their diet consists primarily of fish, sometimes crustaceans, including krill, cephalopods and squids etc. In order to hunt, they often reach depths of 700 feet, and can stay submerged for up to 18minutes, emperors have by far the deepest and longest dives for any bird. It has a number of adaptations to facilitate its ability to its advantage in the water, including structured hemogoblin to allow the penguin to function at low oxygen levels.

The predators of the emperor penguins in the wild include Antarctic giant petrels, leopard seals, orcas, skuas and sharks. Due to these predators, a lot of the penguin babies might not survive to become adults, parents might also be killed after laying eggs which causes them not being able to make it back to care for the offspring. Most of the major predators are found in the water, so it tends to be safer on land but smaller ones can sometimes be attacked by minor species such as snakes and lizards. Luckily, although there are a number of predators around the habitat of the penguins, they are not yet classified as endangered yet.
Habitat of Emperor Penguins

Population: 200,000 pairs
Location: Weddell and Ross Sea regions
Size: Up to 40 inches tall
Weight: 88 pounds
Diet: Fish, squid, & crustaceans
Nests: None
Annotation of Penguin

Common Name: Penguin
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Sphenisciformes
Family: Spheniscidae
Genus: Aptenodytes
Species: Aptenodytes forsteri

Related species:
  1. king - Aptenodytes patagonica
  2. Adélie - Pygoscelis adeliae
  3. gentoo - Pygoscelis papua
  4. chinstrap - Pygoscelis antarcticus
  5. rockhopper - Eudyptes crestatus
  6. macaroni - Eudyptes chrysolophus
  7. royal - Eudyptes schlegeli
  8. Fiordland crested - Eudyptes pachyrhynchus
  9. erect-crested - Eudyptes sclateri
  10. Snares Island - Eudyptes robustus
  11. yellow-eyed - Megadyptes antipodes
  12. fairy (little blue) - Eudyptula minor
  13. Magellanic - Spheniscus magellanicus
  14. Humboldt - Spheniscus humboldti
  15. black-footed - Spheniscus demersus
  16. Galapagos - Spheniscus mendiculus

Structural 1 – Body shape

An Emperor Penguin diving

Unlike the majority of the other birds, Emperor penguins spend 75% of their live in the water of Antarctica.
Their adaptations have been changed to enhance their survivability in the ocean, the body has been designed to equip themselves with the assets to meet that. The Emperor Penguin’s body is built strong, producing an external bulkiness to their size and shape, also designed to maximize the efficiency for the penguin. Their head is big and their neck is short, thick, which forms a streamlined, fusiform shaped body. This kind of elongated body shape can reduce the drag while swimming and can increase the swimming speed. Another reason why Emperor penguins have this kind of head structure is because they capture different kinds of fish. Normally the short and stouter ones would feed on krill, but the emperor penguin with such thick neck can feed on fish. Penguins have wings because they are birds. However, they have lost their capability to fly in the air, instead, the wings have developed to allow them to “fly” in water, where they spend the most time in. Under water, the wings are used as rudders and propellers. The motion of the flippers resembles the movements of flying birds. The wings are attached to the breast muscles which are strongly developed to aid in swimming. To maintain the streamline body shape, apart from hutching it’s head into it’s shoulders, the feet are also pressed to the body against the tail to improve steering.

The environmental pressure that might have cause the penguins to have this kind of fusiform body shape is because these birds rely on their speed in water heavily. These flightless birds have become extremely well adapted to the marine environment which gives them an advantage for escaping from their predators. The wide chest are also developed from increased ability to store oxygen in the body.

Structural 2 - Feather

A Molting Penguin
In the Antarctica, all the birds and mammals such as penguins, whales and seals which are all warm blooded animals have to maintain their

Feathers of Emperor Penguin

internal body temperature in order to survive the intense temperature of the environment. Their feather uniform over their skin, and are very specialized, short, broad and closely spaced. This can help keep water away from the skin with a very high density of feather per inch of skin, with about 100 feathers per inch. There is also a greasy later over their feather provides waterproofing, with the combination of density of feather and the oil layer, it is almost impenetrable to wind and water. All species of penguins are coloured, and Emperor penguins are not excluded. Emperors are dark coloured on the dorsal and the white on their ventral. This is because when the predator is looking from below, the white underside will blend in with the lighter surface, whereas when the predator is looking from above, the black backside of the penguin can camouflage with the dark sea bottom. Their feathers go through one complete molt just like most of the other penguin species each year. During the molt, new feather grows under the old one by pushing it out. During the molt,
a close up look at the uniformed feathers.

the feathers lose some of their insulating and waterproofing capabilities, therefore they need to stay out of the water until the feather is restored in optimum condition.

Over the times of evolution Emperor penguins have become unable to fly, therefore the light feathers are not needed anymore. They adapted to live in water and that has caused their feather to be short and water proof, to equip themselves with better survival tool. The light feather has also become some kind of thick coat for them in order to protect themselves from the extreme temperature, wind, rain and sleet etc.

Behavioural 1 – Huddling

Katabatic winds, the freezing winds that intensify the cold in the polar plateau is one of the most
Male Emperor Penguins in Huddle

challenging concern the emperor penguins have to face every day. When the male emperor penguins have to incubate their eggs, they need to keep themselves warm in order to stay alive. These emperor penguins are big birds, their incubation fat is nearly as thick as the chest of a man but that is not enough to keep warm in the blizzards up to 200 km/h. These penguins developed a technique by huddling together to share body warmth and minimize the energy expenditure.. This huddling technique can reduce the heat loss by as much as 50%. During the huddling, the Emperor penguins take turns withstanding the windward side, progressively peeling off the other sides of the group to share the duty of protecting the huddle group. This method causes the group of huddling penguins to move downwind bit by bit, increasing the temperature among them to as high as 24°C+.On a cold day, every square meter of a huddle can be packed by as many as 10 penguins. This behavior is rarely found anywhere else, the huddling technique is an extraordinary act of the penguins, which show co- operation and is very remarkable.

Normally penguins are very territorial, and will rarely approach each other, but the extremely cold terrain has forced the emperor penguins to develop this behavior so that they can manage to survive and breed their next generation successfully in the thrilling depths of the Antarctic winter.

Behavioural 2 – Incubation Sequence

Emperor Penguins have an average life span of 15 to 20 years, some odd ones might live much longer. Like most species of penguins, both the female and the male adults take turns incubating the egg. Among the emperor penguins, after the female has laid a new egg, she transfers it to the male’s feet and then leaves to find herself and the baby food. While the female is gone for food, the male incubates the egg for as long as 66 days, this incubation period usually lasts from 4 weeks to 66 days. During the incubation period, the male will be unable to eat at all. Instead, his duty is to keep the egg warm by balancing it on his feet, which is insulated by think rolls of skin and feathers also known as the ‘Brood Pouch’. This seasonal incubation causes the male to lose nearly one- third of it’s weight, though they still have to travel another 60 miles to find it’s food, the effort the male penguin put in is very remarkable. They only breed in the winter, which have developed to let their single offspring to grow when the food is the most plentiful and the least predators around.

The explanation of why the male Emperor incubates while the female Emperor goes off for food is because, the Emperor is physically bigger, heavier and stronger than the female Emperor penguin, therefore the Male can stay and protect its egg from its predators in the harsh winter. Secondly, through evolution, the male Emperor penguins have developed a brood pouch to protect and keep the egg safe. In order to do that, the male penguins build up big fat reserves before incubating so that they could have enough energy to slowly burn off through the incubation. As mentioned, they lose nearly one- third of its weight therefore they have to gain a large layer of blubber- like fat under the skin from a diet of fish and squid, to increase their durability.The male Emperors have also become the ones to stay after is because the female Emperor might not have returned even when the egg is hatched, therefore the male’s oesophagus which can create milk can be used to feed the chick to keep it alive.

Male Emperor Penguins in incubation

a Penguin interacting with Human

Physiological - 1 Heart Rate

Chart comparing Penguin and Human psi

A penguin’s resting heart beat is somewhere around 60 to 70 beats per minute, but this is intensely increased to 180 to 200 beat per minute before a dive as they load up with oxygen. After the hit the water, the heart beat rate drops to around 100 beat per minute and immediately slows to only 20 beats per minute throughout the whole dive. Every time they return to the surface for oxygen, this process occurs again. It is
also found that, under deep diving conditions, penguins’ exhibit reduced peripheral blood flow.

Such extraordinary physiological adaptations have been developed because these penguins have to spend most of their live in the water. If they did not have an enhanced physiological structure, it would be very difficult for them to survive in the water. Having such low heart rate when under water can increase the duration under water for a longer period. This a very essential advantage for the Penguins.

A diagram showing the heart rate of a penguin.

  1. Wild Life of Antarctica (n.d.) No Date Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  2. Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  3. CNET Networks (2005) Emperor Penguin Research Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  4. Busch Entertainment Corporation (2002) Physical Characteristics Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  5. Barbara Wienecke, Graham Robertson (2011) Emperor penguins: winter survivors Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  6. Animal Corner (2011) Emperor Penguin (aptenodytes Forsteri) Retrieved 24/6/11 from
  7. BlurtIt (n.d.) No Date How fast can a penguin Retrieved 24/6/11 from

Darrell Chan