Specific characteristics: sound (mp3)
This is the largest
species of penguins. Emperor penguins are only found on and around the Antarctic continent, on the thick pack ice and rarely on mainland.
They have a pale yellow, open (breast and chin patch are one) patch
on chin and breast.
A long, thin and curved bill, typical for fish eaters.
Very dark grey back and blue black head. Chicks are silver grey with black head and white face.
Size and weight:
Adult emperor penguins are up to 1,2 m tall.
Juvenile emperors are remarkable smaller with a size of 90 cm à 1 m.
They weight between 30 and 40 kg, with great fluctuations during the year.
Males can lose up to half of their weight, while incubating their egg.
© Kevin Schafer
Naming or nomenclature:
The emperor penguin was first described after an expedition by Sir James Clark Ross in 1844.
Emperor penguins owe their scientific name (Aptenodytes forsteri) to their discoverer, the first natural scientist
to reach Antarctica, the German Johann Reinhold Forster. Forster came to Antarctica in 1770, on Captain James Cook's ship, and
saved Cook's life during the voyage. Cook was weakened by hunger and cold. Forster served him fresh meat bouillon although
there was only rusk on board. But when Cook recovered, the ship's dog was missing. Maybe that's the reason why the emperors were named
for their appearance rather than their discoverer.
- Dutch: keizerspinguïn
- German: Kaiserspinguin
- French: manchot empereur
- Spanish: pingüino emperador
- South African Dutch: Keiserpikkewyn
- Portuguese: Pinguim-imperador
Emperor penguins breed on the permanent ice on Antarctica, till up to more than 100 km of the edge.
They rarely set foot on the mainland, but stay on the ice.
The total breeding population is estimated at 170 million pairs.
More than a quarter of the total population breeds on the Ross sea, and one colony can contain up
to 20 thousand pairs.
Status: stable, not in danger.
Emperor penguins have a very extreme breeding behaviour.
It is the only species that breeds
during the Antarctic winter
Before reaching their breeding "ground", in March-April they have to walk
for up to 100 km over the ice. This sea ice is formed every winter around April and melt away
in the austral summer (December-January). Therefore they have to breed far from the edge, to avoid it would melt
under their feet before the chicks are ready to fledge.
© Elizabeth Burtt
Most of the colonies are situated under the shelter of icebergs or cliffs.
The female lay one single egg in May, and directly pass it on to the male, who will incubate
it on its own
during the Antarctic winter (June-August and at minus 70 °C) for 64 days on its feet.
For protection against the cold and icy weather all breeding males huddle
together in a large group.
They slowly rotate in a circular way, so every male on its turn has a chance to warm up in the centre and
has to bear the storms at the outside.
By the time the chick hatch
(August), the females return to feed it.
If it takes too long before the female arrives, the male will still be able to throw up a kind of
"porridge" as a first meal for the chick. It is amazing how they can do it, knowing they had no food
at all during the period of walking, courting and incubation (3 months).
But then the emaciated males must go to sea, or they would starve.
If the female isn't back, the male will abandon the chick to save its own life.
If the female arrives in time, she will guard the chick for some weeks (24 days).
© Elizabeth Burtt
After 40 days the chick will be able to resist the cold and huddle together in crèches
Now both parents alternate to feed the chick. In the meanwhile it is spring and the ice has melt away,
so the distance to the edge is much shorter and the adults can come and go much faster.
Early November the chick will moult to its juvenile plumage.
The chick fledge
in December-January (early summer) when it is 120 till 150 days old.
They weight just half as much as the adults, but while it is the summer, there is plenty of food and
they will grow very fast.
They become sexually mature around 5 à 6 year.
The adult birds moult in February for 30 days, after a period of feeding up at sea.
They eat several fish (mainly Pleuragramma) with a complement of crusteceans like krill.
They hunt at a depth till 150 m under the ice for krill and crusteceans and between 400 and 450 m
for fish and squid. They can stay under water for 2 till 9 minutes, but their record is 565 m depth
and uninterrupted 18 min under water.
While breeding in the winter, eggs and chicks have little to suffer of birds.
Most of the time, only the giant petrel will steal a careless chick.
But the icy cold
is often fatal for eggs and chicks: while passing on the egg,
it has to happen very quickly or the egg will be frozen. The first weeks after hatching, chicks which escape
from under the brood patch, will soon freeze to death. And while non-breeders, or birds who lost their own,
will try to steal the egg or chick of another bird, but abandon it after a short time, the mortality rate is high.
In the water leopard seals and orcas are predators to adult and juvenile birds.