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Emperor Penguin

ROUGH DRAFT pages from Peter Harrison’s


Zegrahm Expeditions — Your Adventure Travel Experts

Aptenodytes forsteri Figs XXa—XX
MAP Vol 1 p XXX

French: Manchot empereur German: Kaiserpinguin Spanish: Pingúino Emperador

TAXONOMY: Aptenodytes forsteri (G.R. Gray 1844), Antarctic Sea. Monotypic.

IDENTIFICATION: Confined to Antarctic seas generally S of 65° parallel. Sexes outwardly alike but males
average larger. No seasonal variation. Juveniles and immatures separable from adults. Within their normal
range unmistakable due to their robust size and strikingly patterned plumage. Immatures are smaller, less
bulky with smaller, weaker bills, whitish-yellow neck patches and diagnostic white chin and throat.

CONFUSION SPECIES: Large size and strikingly patterned plumage is only shared by smaller, brighter,
more N King Penguin (p XXX), that species rarely straying S of 65°, whereas Emperor is obligate pack-ice
species and rarely wanders N of 65° S. Most confusion arises with immatures of the two species that do
wander. Care is needed to separate the two: Immature Emperors are larger with proportionately shorter bills,
smaller, paler mandible plates and with diagnostic white chin and throat. Immature King Penguins are
smaller, longer-billed with dark chin and throat and smaller, more spoon-shaped auricular patches. Adults
are readily separated by size; King Penguin is only half the bulk of Emperor Penguin, has proportionately
longer bill and, when scrutinized carefully, smaller, brighter, more spoon-shaped auricular patches that are
located on the sides of face, not towards the neck as in Emperor. At sea immature and adult Emperors
clearly have larger, more apparent neck patches which reach the waterline. Note too that flipper underside is
wholly white in Emperor Penguin (King has dark patch at tip).

Length 112--115cm (44--45 in). Weight 19—46kg (42—101 lb). Iris brown. Bill rather short, slightly decurved,
with pink lower mandible plate. Legs/feet blackish-grey.

Adult: Head blackish except for large yellowish-orange and white neck patches. Body upperparts light blue-
grey with blackish border extending downwards from sides of neck to flanks. Underparts mostly white,
usually with distinct ivory-hue and with the upper breast more golden-yellow. Flipper upperside as
upperparts, underside white with only narrow dark margins. Tail blackish-grey, short. Note: In worn plumage
auricular patches whiter.

Immature: As adult but smaller, slimmer, less robust with smaller, duller pinkish lower mandible plate. Head
browner in tone, often paler around eyes, neck patches ill-defined and whitish with diagnostic white chin and

Juvenile: As immature but smaller, some fledge only half the weight and bulk of adults. Head mostly dark, a
little paler around eyes and on chin and throat.

Chick: Mostly silvery-grey with conspicuous white mask around eyes and on cheeks and throat contrasting
with blackish head (perhaps the most arresting of all seabird chicks).

HABITS AND JIZZ: Largest of all penguin species, twice the bulk and weight of slimmer, more agile King
Penguin (p XXX). Gait slower, more “thoughtful” and ponderous as it moves over ice, often resorting to
prone position and tobogganing on belly. Enjoys the most S breeding distribution of any bird, being an
obligate pack-ice species. Unique breeding biology with males incubating egg through Antarctic winter to
ensure early chick release to coincide with springtime ice retreat, increase in ocean productivity and ever-
lengthening daylight hours of Antarctic summer.

VOICE: Both sexes have loud trumpeting contact and agnostic calls and loud sexual display calls. In latter
both sexes deliver powerful, rhythmic duet in display, a high-pitched nasal bray, trumpeted with neck/head
held crooked and resting on breast, then with head slowly raised. At sea has a single, loud “ah” note.

HABITAT:Marine and pelagic in Antarctic waters, preferring pack-ice regions with 40—60% ice cover
affording numerous haul-out opportunities. Occasionally in 100% ice cover at which time it often frequents
tidal cracks and Weddell Seal breathing holes and exits from them in spectacular leaps of 2—5m (6.5—16.4
ft) to land loudly, belly down on the ice. Colonies are usually situated on level areas of stable fast ice
amongst closely packed, grounded icebergs; only two of the c. 50 known colonies are on land: at Dion I and
at Taylor Glacier.
FOOD AND FEEDING: Diet varied and includes euphausiids and cephalopods but over 90% of food intake
is fish, especially nototheniidae spp. Captures prey by means of pursuit diving in dive bouts of two types:
shallow dives of less than 150m (492 ft) and deeper dives to over 400m (1,312 ft) when dive durations can
last 15—20 mins. Occasionally dives to depths of 549m (1,800 ft); deepest recorded dive 632m (2,072 ft). In
single foraging trip adults can travel between 150—1,000km (93—621 mi). Interestingly, adults also include
small pebbles when regurgitating food to chicks (pers obs). It is not known whether this is intentional (for

BREEDING: Highly colonial. After Jan—Mar recuperation period from previous season’s breeding attempt,
adults begin to arrive at ice edge and gather in groups. Timing of these gatherings and the 50—120km (31—
75 mi) walk to their respective colonies is highly synchronized so that birds arrive at colonies en masse, over
a short period of days. Return to colonies thus begins in Mar—Apr and males, weighing up to 40kg (88 lb)
often appear to return to the colony a few days earlier than the females. Seasonally monogamous, but pair-
fidelity between seasons very low, averaging only c. 15%. By early Apr courtship displays (see under Voice
above) are in full swing and the females begin to lay their single, large white egg (465g; 16.4 oz) May—Jun.
Once laid the female transfers the egg to the feet of the male and retraces her journey back to the edge of
the fast ice after fasting for c. 40 days. Unlike other penguin spp, Emperor Penguins do not hold territory, the
males huddle together in a conglomerate mass yet constantly on the move with egg (or chick) on top of feet,
to gain shelter from changes of wind direction and to ensure a constant source of clean snow. Latter is
extremely important to maintain correct metabolism over the males’ c. 115 days of fasting (exceptionally 134
days). Density of huddles around 8—9 birds per square metre, with males losing several ounces of fat per
day in temperatures that can be down to minus 57°C (-70°F). By the end of the incubation fast, males can
have lost 40% of their pre-breeding, 40kg (88 lb) mass. The females, meanwhile having trudged to the ice
edge, are foraging at sea, timing their return for the chicks’ emergence. The eggs, having been incubated by
the male only, hatch after c. 64—65 days. Incredulously, despite having not eaten for over 100 days and
having lost nearly half of its body mass during the incubation fast, male Emperors are usually the first to feed
the chick with a oesophageal (crop) secretion consisting of 59% protein, 28% lipid (Prevost and Vilter 1963).
Chicks, semi-altricial and nidicolous, weigh c. 315g (11.1 oz) hatch near naked with pale grey down and
conspicuous black-and-white head pattern. This is soon replaced by so-called “Biggles” suit. Females return
to the colony around the hatching period (mid Jul—early Aug) and reunite with partners whereupon the male
transfers the chick to the feet of the female. Males are now released and begin long trek back across the ice
(50—100km, 31—62 mi) to edge of sea ice. Females now brood and feed the chick for the next 24 or so
days, before being relieved by the returning male for a further 7 days. Chicks, clad in their “Biggles” suits,
start to spend time outside incubation pouch at about 1 month of age and form crèches from 40 days
onwards. Males and females now forage simultaneously with frequency of feeding visits during crèche
period increasing as chicks age because pack ice recedes and distance to open water decreases. On
average each adult will make between 6—12 journeys back and forth across the ice during the c. 150 day
fledging period. With the ice edge now closer to the colony the chicks are abandoned by their parents and
begin moult into juvenile plumage, weighing just 10—15kg (22—33 lb). Chicks depart colony and head for
the ice edge which can be up to 60km (37 mi) distant; some chicks will enter the ocean with residual down
still showing. Fledging success c. 65%. Main causes of chick mortality are blizzards, exposure and
starvation (52—82%). Nonbreeding adults or adults that have lost their chicks, often referred to as
“Mavericks”, cause up to 7% mortality in their attempts to kidnap chicks. Age at first breeding 5 yrs for
females, 6 yrs for males. Adult survivorship 95%, longevity to at least 20 yrs.

STATUS AND DISTRIBUTION: Not globally threatened. Total population 200,000—250,000 pairs at c. 50
known colonies, most in E Antarctica and Ross Sea between 68°—78° S, but enjoys circumpolar distribution
around coastal Antarctica. Total number of individuals probably 400,000—500,000. New colonies, albeit
small, are still being discovered as at Snow Hill I in Erebus and Terror Gulf, N Weddell Sea (2003). Epicentre
of distribution is Ross Sea area with c. 80,000 pairs. Other notable populations include: Cape Washington
20,000—25,000 pairs; Coulman I, Victoria Land 21,700; Halley Bay, Coast Land 14,300—31,400. Status
stable although numbers have declined at some colonies, especially those near to scientific bases due,
perhaps, to disturbance from human visitations, helicopter over-flights, etc. Current threats include increased
disturbance from scientific and tourist visits and global climate change causing early fast ice break-up and
deaths of adults and destruction of colony.

MOVEMENTS: Little known. Adults probably do not venture far from seas adjacent to colonies. Immatures
disperse, moving into pelagic habitat towards Antarctic Convergence. Vagrants have reached Tierra del
Fuego, South Orkneys, South Sandwich, South Georgia, Falklands, Kerguelen, Head and shores of New
Zealand. Northernmost record is of 3 immatures at 40°S off Argentina.