Wildlife in Antarctica, Part 1: Penguins
Antarctica is home to a specialized group of sea-dependent animals who are able to adapt to extreme dryness, low temperatures, and high exposure. Antarctica’s inhabitants are mostly seasonal dwellers, coming to Antarctica during the Austral Summer to feed and reproduce.
Today we will look at one well-known group, penguins.
Penguins are usually the first animal that come to mind when thinking about Antarctica. However, most people imagine “Happy Feet” and don’t know that there are five distinct species of penguin that live in and around the Antarctic Peninsula.
Penguins are the most common birds in the southern ocean. Although they have wings and feathers, penguins cannot fly. Instead, they have evolved into the most efficient swimmers and divers of all birds.
Only Emperor and Adelie penguins live year-round on the continent, while the Gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni penguins live on Antarctica and its surrounding islands for part of the year. (King Penguins can be found on South Georgia).
Adelie penguins look like small men in suits with their black head and back, and white chest. They are distinguished also by the white ring around the eye. Adélies are truly Antarctic penguins, living only in Antarctic coastal waters. During winter they spend their time in the pack ice, and in the summer they move south, back to the Antarctic coast.
- Estimated population: 2.5 million breeding pairs
- Where they live: Antarctic continent and sub-Antarctic islands; Adelies can be seen in certain sites during Antarctic Peninsula cruises
- Breeding season: November – February
Known for the black band of feathers below their chin, Chinstraps are possibly the most populous Penguin in the Antarctic. A bit smaller than Adelies, Chinstraps are known for being noisy and aggressive.
- Estimated population 8 million breeding pairs
- Where they live: Antarctica, South Shetland Islands, South Orkneys, South Georgia and Bouvet Island, Chinstraps can usually be seen on Antarctic Peninsula & South Georgia cruises
- Breeding season: December – March
The tallest and heaviest of the penguin species, the Emperor lives in Antarctica year-round. Reaching up to 40 kg and standing over 1 meter, these penguins have an upright bearing that goes with their name. The only species to breed in the Antarctic winter, the male emperor penguins are known for balancing the egg on their feet for months on the ice while the female feeds.
- Estimated population: 595,000 individuals
- Where they live: Continental Antarctica, the southernmost penguin species; Emperors can be seen on special interest trips that focus on inland excursions
- Breeding season: April – December
The most northern of the Antarctic penguin species, the Gentoo can easily be identified by its bright orange-red bill and white stripe above the eye. A bit larger than the Chinstrap and Adeile penguins, the Gentoo has a longer tail and is known for its head-back chortling call.
- Estimated population: 320,000 breeding pairs
- Where they live: Falkland Islands and south to the sub-Antarctic Islands; Gentoos are numerous on the Antarctic Peninsula trips & in the Falkland Islands
- Breeding season: December – March
This distinctive penguin has a yellow crest, making it easy to identify. Macaroni penguins are social birds and have the largest and most densely populated breeding colonies.
- Estimated population: 9 million breeding pairs
- Where they live: Sub-Antarctica Islands to Antarctic Peninsula (including Falklands, South Georgia, South Shetlands); these penguins are less commonly sighted, but can be seen on Antarctic Peninsula trips
- Breeding season: October – December
The King Penguin is the second largest species and the brightest of all, with colorful feather around their heads and necks. The babies sometimes appear larger than then adults, as they are covered in dark brown fluff and were called “wooly penguins” by early explorers.
- Estimated population: 2.23 million breeding pairs
- Where they live: Sub-Antarctic islands, largest colony on South Georgia; Kings can be seen on South Georgia expeditions
- Breeding season: Starts in November or January; raise 2 chicks every 3 years
Coming up next… Mammals in Antarctica
Sources: Wikipedia, Cool Antarctica, & bbc.co.uk