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A Closer Look at Four of Antarctica’s Most Popular Penguins

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Penguins are one of the most common birds in the Antarctic, with colonies larger than some cities. On your Antarctica cruise, some of the main penguin species you might see include the macaroni penguin, Adélie penguin, chinstrap penguin, and emperor penguin.
Antarctic Peninsula

The core four: macaronis, Adélies, chinstraps, and emperors

Penguins are one of the most common birds in the Antarctic, with colonies larger than some cities. On your Antarctica cruise, some of the main penguin species you might see include the macaroni penguin, Adélie penguin, chinstrap penguin, and emperor penguin.

Penguin underwater agility

Penguins are the most efficient swimmers and divers of all the birds. Some penguin species spend up to 75 percent of their time at sea. Their short wings act as flippers that propel them through the water, letting them essentially fly under the sea. Meanwhile their tail becomes a rudder, giving them precision to catch their prey. Another trick they have up their sleeves is to dive to depths of over 250 metres (820 feet), which they can accomplish due to their high bone density.

Macaroni penguins and their stylish haircuts

Macaroni penguins have large, orange, fluffy plumes and are the most numerous of the penguin species, with an estimated population of 12 million breeding pairs. Many macaroni penguins live in the South Shetlands. They form huge colonies that can have hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs and are located on hillsides as well as rocky cliffs.

These penguins are noted for a unique egg-laying habit in which the female lays two eggs, the first one much smaller than the second. The smaller one rarely hatches. In South Georgia, macaroni penguins arrive to breed in late October and lay their eggs two weeks later. Both parents share incubating duties, but it comes at a great energy expense, with the adults losing up to half of their body weight in the process.

The young chick fledges for two months after hatching, with just one parent staying at home to look after it. This focus on raising one chick means that the macaroni population doesn’t have a boom-bust population cycle like other penguin species.

The brief love life of the Adélie penguin

During a voyage to Antarctica, you may see Adélie penguins. They are true-blue Antarctic penguins that live along the continent’s coastlines. During the winter, they will spend their time on the pack ice before moving south in the summer back to the Antarctic coast.

These penguins live in tightly-packed colonies the number in the thousands of pairs all around Antarctica, with typical places for colonies being ice-free slopes and islands. They mainly eat krill, and while they can dive down to 175 metres (574 feet), they usually catch their meals at the surface.

Their breeding season is one of the shortest of all the penguins, with the males walking over the sea ice a few days ahead of the females. When the females arrive, there is a brief courtship with lots of flipper-waving and calls. The female lays two eggs in mid-November, with both parents taking care of them before they hatch in late December. After the chicks hatch, the young join a crèche, or nursery, before heading out to sea by mid-February. During the crèche stage, the chicks are extremely vulnerable, and only two-thirds make it this far.

Once out to sea, the young are safe and can enjoy a life that averages 16 years. While they have a high mortality rate, the species overall has a healthy total population of more than 2.5 million pairs.

Chinstrap penguins and their peaceful personalities

The chinstrap penguin is one of the most abundant penguin species in the Antarctic region, with an estimated 8 million breeding pairs, the majority of which are found in the Antarctic Peninsula. Some chinstrap colonies have around 100,000 breeding pairs, though such mega-colonies are seldom reached during polar cruises.

Chinstrap penguins live on a diet chiefly of crustaceans and can dive up to 70 metres (229 feet) to catch their food. However, the majority of the time they take short 30 second dives in the top 10 metres (32 feet) of the sea to catch their next bite. When setting up a base, they prefer the ice-free slopes to nest on.

Rather than fight with other penguin species, chinstraps coexist peacefully with Adélie and gentoo penguins. Chinstrap penguins are fond of familiarity and return each year to the same nesting site with the same partner. They enjoy a longer breeding season than Adélies because chinstraps live in warmer areas around the Antarctic Peninsula, laying their eggs late in November and hatching in early January. The chicks usually fully fledge two months later and are treated equally by their parents in regard to feeding.

All hail the mighty emperor penguin

The emperor penguin is the largest of all the penguins and has a distinctive gold patch on its ears and on top of its black head. These penguins breed far south, forming large colonies on the sea ice surrounding the Antarctic Continent. In fact, emperor penguins never set foot on the land and rarely head north into sub-Antarctic waters.

Emperor penguins let their young fledge in the late summer season by breeding in the coldest and darkest time of the year, when temperatures can plummet to a bone-chilling -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds can reach speeds up to 200 kph (124 mph). Over the winter period, the female lays a single egg and then passes it over to the male, who incubates it. Meanwhile, the female heads out to sea to feed.

During a nine-week period, the male stays put, fasting away while keeping the egg warm. In fact, a male emperor can lose up to 45 percent of his body weight during this time. The female comes back in August, and then it’s the male’s turn to head out to sea and feed. The male often has to trek up to 100 km (62 miles) over the ice to find food. Once fed, he returns and helps the female rear the chick.

When the sea ice starts to break up over December and January, the emperor penguin family heads out to sea. Scientists speculate that the adults take the chick out to sea when food is plentiful so that the chick can learn to be independent. Once the chick becomes an adult, it will be able to take the deepest and longest dive of any bird, reaching just over 200 metres (700 feet) deep and staying underwater for up to 18 minutes.

While emperor penguins have a high survival rate, with an average of 95 percent surviving the year, they are also the least common penguin: There are only around 200,000 pairs to be found in the world. 

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