The Emperor Penguin Strikes Back

Emperor Penguins may seem funny and docile, but they can attack when you least expect it. One time I was visiting the San Diego Zoo and was able to be present at a penguin feeding. By the way, I’m always excited to see zoo animals not sleeping or hiding behind rocks. The big cats seem to do this all the time. It’s almost like cats are always sleeping, but I know that can’t be true because I watched the Lion King. Anyway, the keeper was tossing fish to a penguin named Tux, but another penguin named Cher became jealous and started whacking her bill against the keeper’s leg. The keeper ignored Cher, so she responded by bumping into the back of the keeper’s legs, causing the keeper to slip off the rocks and into the water. Penguins are devious, and so am I, because that story is completely made up to get your attention. Following up on my previous post, this blog will dive more into the world of Emperor Penguins. Ready to slide?

Adult emperor penguin tobogganing

As mentioned in my last blog, Emperor Penguins are the largest penguins and have adapted to surviving around the frigid, icy waters of Antarctica. The males starve themselves for two months to guard the eggs while the females take a vacation and enjoy a sushi buffet.  Once the females return, they care for the newly-hatched chicks while the males fill up on krill and fish. In addition to the cold, penguin chicks famous numerous other challenges to their survival.

Emperor penguin chick, head detail showing barbs inside beak for gripping fish Feed me!

One of the way chicks deal with the cold is to use the huddling strategy employed by adults. Unfortunately, there are times when some chicks perish because they are unable to maintain enough body heat.

Emperor penguin chicks huddled in a crèche to retain body heat

Emperor penguin chicks huddling together during snowstorm

Chicks that make it through the cold must also learn to avoid predators who enjoy munching on penguin meat. Several birds such as skuas (group of large seabirds similar to gulls) and Giant Petrels occasionally scavenge on penguin carcasses. Skuas may also feast on penguin eggs and even some chicks, particularly those who are weak. Penguins are well-known for their clumsiness on land, so a single chick can be vulnerable to attack by large seabirds. Interestingly enough, researchers have discovered that the way a penguin waddles actually conserves energy and is an effective form of locomotion for a large bird with short legs. Basically, a penguin uses gravity (think of a pendulum) to help it shuffle across the ice. According to the study (Griffin, T.M. and R. Kram. 2000. Penguin waddling is not wasteful. Nature 408:929), penguins actually retain a higher percentage of energy than humans when walking! I think I’ll start waddling to class now. Back to the chicks, staying with the flock is a good way to find protection from aerial predators.

Emperor penguin chicks with adult

Land is not the only place where danger may lurk. The deadliest threats to penguin chicks and adults are found in the water. Leopard Seals can grow to over 11 feet long and weigh more than 800 pounds! Leopard Seals can use their strong jaws and sharp teeth to dismember penguins. These seals will sometimes sneak up on penguins in the water. Other times, they may lie in wait under an ice shelf until penguins begin jumping in the water. Emperors do not have many physical weapons to fight back with, so the best way to escape leopard seals is to avoid them. Another option is to push an unlucky victim into the water so that the rest of the flock can go fishing while the seal enjoys a meal. Despite their slow walking ability, penguins do have other ways of moving quickly. Tobogganing, for example, enables penguins to slip and slide rapidly down a snow bank or across the ice.

Emperor penguins tobogganing

Emperor Penguins are also able to “fly” underwater using their strong, short flippers. After feeding on fish, emperors are able to quickly launch themselves out of the water and onto the ice. A recent hypothesis suggests that emperor penguins may use air lubrication to attain high speeds underwater before a jump. The idea is that emperors may be able to release compressed air from their feathers during their ascent, which causes a stream of bubbles which “lubricates” the penguin body and reduces drag from friction or the penguin’s own mass. Below is a fun video showing how penguins launch themselves out of the water. The funniest part is when a penguin misjudges the jump and falls back.

Penguins are also preyed upon by Killer Whales. Killer Whales are vicious predators that will actually eat almost anything that moves in the water. There is also a record of explorers at the South Pole eating stewed penguin and penguin jerky. IN case you’re wondering, the explorers noted that penguin has a fatty, oily taste and was not as good as seal meat.

Emperor Penguins are neat birds with some cool characteristics, They can fly underwater, launch themselves like a cannonball, and are able to endure some of the harshest conditions on earth. Penguins unfortunately went extinct on the planet Hoth due to the presence of a particularly fierce wampa. That’s okay though, because the emperor penguins will strike back, and legions of penguins will launch out of the sea into the unsuspecting wampa’s lair to avenge their brethren. My next blog will look at more penguins! Yay! May you slide through the icy troubles of life and may you not be eaten by a leopard seal.

Emperor penguin chick with wings raised

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