All you want to know about Antarctica’s most emblematic animal
What polar bears are for the Arctic, emperor penguins are for Antarctica.
These flightless aquatic birds are probably the most archetypical animals in all of the southern polar regions, and certainly among the most popular wildlife attractions for our passengers.
They also happen to be the largest, deepest diving, and hardiest species of penguin (at least in terms of breeding), adorned with the classic “tuxedo” appearance that has become so associated with the penguin group as a whole – even though many penguins prefer more casual attire.
But popular as emperor penguins are, we’ve only just scraped the surface in terms of naming what makes them so fascinating.
Here are 44 facts to up the ante for this iconic polar bird, all neatly categorized and divided into easy-to-digest bullet points.
Height, weight, appearance, lifespan, and genus
- Both male and female emperor penguins grow to about 122 cm (four feet) tall and weigh anywhere from 20 – 45 kg (44 – 100 pounds).
- Their tuxedoes serve a purpose: Their white bellies camouflage them against the light from above, and their dark backs camouflage them against the sea depths below.
- Emperor penguins live about 20 years in the wild.
- The emperor penguin genus name, Aptenodytes, means “without-wings-diver.”
- Emperor penguin chicks are preyed upon by birds like the southern giant petrels and south polar skua, while orcas (killer whales) and leopard seals hunt the adults.
Male and female breeding facts
- Emperor penguins are the only penguin to breed in the Antarctic winter.
- They begin courtship in the Southern Hemisphere autumn (around April), when sea ice reforms and becomes thick enough to support colonies.
- To attract a mate, emperor penguin males strut around, push their bills to their chests, and sing with breeding calls that last for about two seconds.
- After breeding, emperor penguin females lay a single egg, then hand the care of the eggs over to the males while they go to sea to feed.
- Emperor penguins build no nests, breeding only on the sea ice.
- Males huddle together and put the eggs on their feet, covering them with a skin fold that keeps them warm.
- Protecting eggs for around four months, male emperor penguins do not eat anything in that time, instead relying on body fat accumulated over the summer.
- After female emperors return and find their mates using their unique calls, then the males can feed after their long months of fasting.
- Emperor penguins are serially monogamous, staying with one mate for the entire season but usually choosing a different mate the next season.
Emperor penguin eggs and chicks
- It takes between 65 to 75 days for emperor penguin eggs to hatch.
- The eggs are kept around 38°C (100°F), even if air temperatures plummet below -35°C (95°F), the males’ skin folds.
- Chicks are born small, weighing about 150 – 200 grams (5.3 – 7.8 ounces), while adults weigh around 22 – 30 kg (48 – 66 pounds) at this time of year.
- Emperor penguin chicks have a thin layer of down but are unable to regulate their own temperature in the first 50 days of life, so their parents must keep them warm.
- Emperor chicks also form warming huddles in the night if left alone.
Energy conservation and heat-saving facts
- Emperor penguins conserve energy with their small bills and small flippers, while their nasal chambers enable them to recover heat normally lost during exhalation.
- They pack a large amount of energy-giving fat and stay idle during the winter to save energy.
- Emperor penguins can recycle their own body heat, as their close vein structure delivers pre-cooled blood to their feet, wings, and bill, then warms the blood up on its way back to their heart.
- They can also reduce their metabolic rate and blood flow to non-essential organs.
- Emperor penguins have incredible insulation, with several layers of scale-like feathers that pack so tightly that it takes very strong winds – over 60 knots – to ruffle them.
- The surface of their feathers is colder than the surrounding air, which researchers believe helps them conserve heat.
- The only parts of emperor penguins warmer than the Antarctic air are their eyes, beaks, and feet – and their eyes are only just above freezing.
Sociability and huddling among emperor penguins
- Emperor penguins are the only non-territorial species of penguin.
- Because of their social nature, huddling is a useful emperor strategy for warmth.
- Huddling helps emperor penguins face cold temperatures and katabatic winds, and on especially cold days up to 10 males may huddle together.
- Emperor penguin huddling reduces heat loss by up to 50 percent, as temperatures inside the huddle can reach upwards of 24°C (75°F).
- They take turns occupying warmer and colder parts of the huddle in a continuous cycle.
Emperor penguin diet and diving facts
- Emperor penguins are near the top of the food chain in the Southern Ocean.
- They hunt in the open sea and often use cracks or other such access points in the sea ice.
- One of the most popular emperor penguins foods is Antarctic silverfish, but Antarctic krill and some species of squid are also favored.
- Most emperor penguin prey is cold but small, enabling them to bring the food to body temperature quickly for digestion.
- Adult emperor penguins eat between two and three kg (4.4 to 6.6 pounds) of food per day, but this increases to about six kg (13.2 pounds) before a molt or at the start of breeding season.
- Emperor penguins typically forage at depths of 150 – 250 meters (490 – 820 feet) but have been recorded at 565 meters (1,853 feet), deeper than any aquatic bird.
- Average emperor dives last between three to six minutes, with one dive timed at 22 minutes.
- Emperor penguins can handle deep dives due to their solid bones, as opposed to the hollow bones common to flying birds.
Emperor penguin colonies, population, and distribution
- In a 2012 study, the British Antarctic Survey found the global population of emperor penguins was twice what was previously thought: 595,000 compared to 270,000 –350,000.
- By contrast, a 1992 study stated that only 135,000 – 175,000 emperors lived in Antarctica, though scientists say this disparity is due to technological advancements in animal counting.
- Various counts have found that between 44 – 46 emperor penguin breeding colonies reside in Antarctica.
- As a species, they are listed as having a “near threatened” conservation status.
- Emperor penguins are one of two penguin species to live on mainland Antarctica, the other being Adélie penguins.
Antarctica trips on which you might see emperor penguins
Our Weddell Sea cruises offer one of the best opportunities for spotting emperor penguins, especially if conditions permit us to make helicopter landings on Snow Hill Island. Please keep in mind, however, this is exceedingly rare.
A Ross Sea voyage may also grant you a sighting, as we sometimes see single emperor penguins along the ice edge of the Amundsen Sea – as well as groups of seals, orcas (killer whales), minkes, and different species of fulmarine petrel.
In fact, the Ross Sea may have once acted as a place of refuge for emperor penguins during the last ice age.
Wherever in Antarctica you see them, however, emperor penguins are likely to make an impression on you. They’re undoubtedly as beloved and beautiful a part of the polar landscape as glaciers, icebergs, and all that endless snow.