Many of the people who join us for a once in a lifetime expedition of the Arctic or Antarctica are curious about specific types of wildlife. One of the most popular choices is the penguin, and travelers love getting to observe these creatures in their natural habitat. The Antarctic region is home to six penguin species, and each of them has their own unique traits. For example, researchers have recently discovered that the Gentoo species has a very practical purpose for their poop: they use it to melt ice.
How Does Poop Melt Ice?
Anyone who has ever taken a dog outside during the winter has most likely noticed that their excrement starts steaming almost instantaneously as a result of the drastic temperature difference. This can be observed when the temperature drops below freezing, and at Cuverville Island can get much colder. In fact, this area often hovers around −44 °C (-47.2 °F) in the winter, and the warmest summer temperature is usually 0 °C (32 °F). With this being the case, it is no wonder that the waste from these penguins is warmer than the surface temperature, but it seems almost impossible for it to be warm enough to make Antarctic ice begin to melt.
© Mellany van der Hulst | Oceanwide Expeditions
Of course, a single pile of Gentoo penguin poop would never be enough to melt the ice in this region, but a huge quantity of it is a completely different story. The research team that reviewed a large collection of images showcasing the behavior of these penguins captured them using a specific area for all of their waste. Over time, these piles of penguin guano were able to attract enough warmth from the sun to create a suitable nursery for their baby chicks. Fortunately for the penguins, their waste is dark brown, and this makes it easier for their piles to hold in the meager warmth that the sun provides.
Why Would Penguins Melt Ice?
Although penguins are used to their environment, it is still necessary to take precautions to safeguard their breeding habits. Therefore, these melted areas are used for mating and as a nursery. This is ideal because the ice around their newly formed nursery can keep predators at bay, and the lower position of the chicks also makes them less of a target. Additionally, this gives the adult penguins the ability to go hunting without worrying about the safety of their babies. In a nutshell, this is almost like having a special lock on your baby’s bedroom door. Although it would not guarantee their safety 100 percent, it would certainly minimize the odds of an intruder gaining access to their room.
Do All Antarctic Penguins Use This Trick?
At the current time, it is unknown if other penguin species have adopted the same technique for building nests. However, Gentoos tend to stay in one of the coldest areas of the Antarctic region, so it is possible that this behavior is unique to their species and has developed as a means of survival. The information that has been collected and analyzed by the University of Oxford in England will almost certainly lead to future studies into the habits of other penguins. In the meantime, there is no way to conclusively determine whether or not any other species uses their excrement to help them melt unwanted ice.
Gentoo Penguin Facts
Gentoo penguins are one of the rarest species in the Antarctic region. There are only 300,000 breeding pairs known to be in existence in this area. Even though this number is quite small, the global total is only 387,000 breeding pairs. Therefore, if you want to see a Gentoo outside of a zoo, you will want to head to the Antarctic Islands. These monogamous birds mate with the same partner on an annual basis. The female Gentoos usually have only two eggs per mating season, and both parents take turns during the incubating process, which lasts more than 30 days. Gentoos are the third largest penguin species, behind the Emperor and King.
© Oceanwide Expeditions
Physical Characteristics of Gentoo Penguins
If you are wondering if you have spotted a Gentoo, you can make a positive identification by paying close attention to their physical features. Gentoos stand out with their peach colored feet, white feather caps and reddish-orange beaks. Additionally, they have a distinctive splash of white feathers around their eyes and a long tail. This makes them easy to spot, but it also makes each penguin easier prey for their natural enemies, including orca whales, sea lions and leopard seals.
Once they reach adulthood, Gentoos can reach 76 cm (30 inches), and they weigh approximately 5.5 kg (12 pounds). Gentoos are the fastest diving bird, and they reach speeds of up to 36 km per hour (22 miles). In a single day, an adult Gentoo can dive as many as 450 times while it is foraging for food. They can reduce their heartbeat dramatically during these dives, and this makes it possible for them to stay underwater long enough to catch a fish.
Penguins typically band together in very large groups, so it is generally easy to spot them from a distance. The group of Gentoo penguins that was recently observed by researchers was at least 100 strong, and the area they were found inhabiting was not very large by comparison. Due to this, it is not unusual for people to spot a gathering of penguins from one of our polar expedition boats. In fact, this happens quite often, but it is still a thrilling experience each time.
The best spots to look for Gentoo penguins on your Antarctica cruise are the peninsulas and Antarctic Islands. They also live in the sub-Antarctic islands. This species can be located on the coastal or inland areas, so it is always a wise idea to keep your camera ready if you are hoping to capture some photographs of these delightful birds. Keep in mind that a telephoto lens will be necessary to get the best possible results. Our expedition guides will often point out penguin groupings so that you have the best opportunity to see them in their natural habitat.