Our Beautiful World

Emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri   

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A group of emperor penguins photographed at Cape Crozier.
Photo Credit: Gerald Kooyman, NSF / Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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When spring is coming back to us up here in the north, and nature wakes up to a new season,
times is upposite in the south, where autumn now is under way. The days will be shorter, temperature decreases
and snowstorm are intensivating. Large parts of the seasurface changes to an icecap.

Almost all the birds that has been here during the antarctic summer, now find their way north.
Only on bird does the oppsite. It moves south, into the interior of this cold place.
That is the Emperor Penguin, the largest, tallest and most beautiful of all the penguins.
It is easily distinguished from the others by the yellow spot on its neck and chest.

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As many Emperor penguins now get closer to their breeding places, they join in larger groups.
Like military columns they march together toward their goal, where they reach in March and April.
However, it is still uncertain if male and female meets again since last year, likewise the Adelie Penguins.

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The eggs are being laid in May or June. The male starts taking care of it, placing it between his feet.
The female soon looses interest, and leaves tghe place and joins the other female penguins and start marching back into the sea.
That trip is often a bit longer than when they came into the breeding place, as it is now winter, and also the coastwaters has
been covered with ice much longer out into the ocean.

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Standing there on his feet, with the egg in between for nearly 2 months, while the female is away, often in temperature down
against minus 40 degrees and snowstorm with windforces up to 145 km/hour, it is not a very pleasant job.
Also, remember, in this long period the male is without any food!
Some times it happens that the female comes back after the chick has been born. How to feed it then?
A remarkable thing about this penguin is that it is able to gulp up something like milk, which it gives to the chicken.
That will help keeping it aliver for a few more days.

Emperor penguins dive beneath the dive holes at the Penguin Ranch in Antarctica.
Credit: Kathi Ponganis, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD

So the female returns and they change place. Now the male goes to sea and stay away for another few weeks.
Out in the ocean it feeds on krill and fish. But there is also the leopard seal, and from time to time the female or the male ends
up as food for a hungry predator. Then, when their partner does not return, the end of the story often is that the chick
is abandoned, and the remaining partner has to leave also, to get food soon again.

Emperor penguins breed in the heart of the Antarctic winter when temperatures reach -60°C -- cold
enough to make human skin freeze and teeth crack. They waddle and toboggan for up to 60km
across the frozen sea to reach their breeding colonies, where they huddle tightly together to keep warm. After egg-laying, all the females return to the ocean to feed, leaving each male carefully balancing a
single egg on his feet, warming it in a special pouch on his belly. The male starves for up to 16 weeks
as he waits for hatching, through the endless night of the Antarctic winter -- yet he still manages to feed
his newly hatched chick, using a special milk-like substance made by the breakdown of his own body
tissue. But will his mate return in time to take over, before his growing hunger forces him to
abandon the egg?


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Text on this page mainly from 'Hele verdens dyreliv', LibriArte, ISBN 82-445-0119-7


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