The Tuxedo Society
PENGUINS may rightly be described as members of the “tuxedo society.” Standing upright, these flightless birds, with black or bluish feathers on the back, and white ones on the belly, resemble men in full-dress suits.
Waddling on land, penguins appear quite clumsy. But in the water they present an entirely different picture. Large members of their kind may arch gracefully over the surface of the water with leaps up to six feet high. Penguins are excellent swimmers. Some have been timed moving at a speed of twenty-five miles an hour. Their long, comparatively narrow wings serve as efficient and powerful flippers. Although playing little part in actual swimming, the webbed feet act as rudders.
Impressive, too, is the underwater detection power of penguins. Tests made at the San Francisco Zoo back in 1963 revealed that penguins can distinguish between the sound from their own bodies in water and that from fish. Two fish were thrown into a tank having walls that absorbed sound and prevented echoes. As four penguins plunged in, the lights were turned off and more fish were scattered throughout the tank. Within thirty seconds, the penguins had eaten all the fish! How did they locate their prey? This still is a mystery.
Another outstanding ability of penguins involves migration. Several years ago, forty Adélie penguins were captured and banded on the bleak coast of Antarctica. They were then flown 1,500 miles to the middle of Ross Ice Shelf and left there. Two years later, three of them arrived back at the home rookery, just in time for the breeding season. They had managed to swim, walk and toboggan on their bellies over many miles of coast and ice pack. Not bad for a flightless bird with no compass!
Courtship, Mating and Breeding
Of particular interest are the courtship and mating habits of penguins. These differ from one penguin variety to another and, therefore, serve to keep the kinds separate.
The Adélie penguin is outstanding in its amorous displays at breeding time. The male makes a crescendo of drumlike noises, slowly stretches his head and bill upward, and beats his flippers in jerks. The female may respond with a bow, her head turned to one side. This constitutes acceptance. Then the male bows in return. Also, one penguin may be observed presenting a stone to another: “Can you tell a male penguin from a female by who presents stones to whom?” asks naturalist R. L. Penney. His answer: “A charming notion—but inaccurate. Both do it.”
Once mated, the adult couples usually remain paired for life. In her book Freezing Point, Lucy Kavaler reports that a couple, marked with aluminum bands attached to their legs, remained together for five consecutive seasons. Usually the young males return to the very spot where they met their mates the previous year. Often, however, the young females do not return, seeking new mates instead. But they become more stable as they mature.
Emperor penguins breed when the environment is most hostile. Their young hatch in a world of darkness and winds that can blow at hurricane force.
After the female lays her egg, she turns it over to the male. He rolls it up into a pouch consisting of a fold of skin that lies just above his feet and below the rolls of fat on his stomach. The egg is thus protected from the cold. Temperatures may drop to 85 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit), but he continues keeping the egg snugly warm under him. Since the penguin sleeps standing up, the egg is never in danger of falling. In times of storm, he joins the other incubating males, and they huddle close together. They rotate, allowing each one some time in the inner circle and some time out in the cold. While carrying the egg, the male birds have nothing to eat. An emperor penguin may lose twenty-five of his seventy-five pounds at this time.
What about the female? While the male is protecting the egg, she is at sea, storing up food in her body. By the end of two months she returns fat and full. Even if the male has moved from where she left him, she can identify him by his cry. Her return practically coincides with the hatching of the egg. Once, the female is back, the male can place the baby in her care while he goes to sea to build up his strength and weight with food.
The baby penguin rides on its mother’s feet, kept warm under her fold of skin. When it is hungry, the chick sticks its little head out from under her fold and whistles. The mother then regurgitates some of the fish she has eaten, and the baby has a meal. Once the male returns, both parents take turns caring for the chick.
Hazards to Survival
Infant mortality from storms, exposure and the like is high among penguins. In his book The Territorial Imperative, Robert Ardrey observes: “No natural hazard which this planet offers can rival those circumstances assaulting the life expectancy of the emperor penguin’s young.”
To Adélie penguins, predatory birds like the giant petrels and the Antarctic skuas are a constant danger. Hence, discipline plays a vital role in protecting the chicks of this penguin variety. If a chick wanders just a foot from the nest, the parents in an adjoining nest attack it almost mercilessly, biting it on the back, the head and the flippers, while it struggles to escape. This action may seem severe, but it serves to protect the chick, since it would surely be attacked by skuas if it were to stray from the colony.
Aside from man, emperor penguins have no creature to fear on land. But in the water, sea leopards and killer whales take their toll. When pursued, emperor penguins can take vertical leaps and land feet first on top of a cake of ice as high as five feet above the surface of the water. They also rely on the safety found in numbers. Usually only those who stray become food for predators.
The greatest destroyer of penguin life, however, is not the hunter but starvation. When a natural feeding ground can no longer support them, they soon disappear. If the food supply increases, so do their numbers.
Though penguins look like members of the “tuxedo society,” clearly theirs is not a life of ease. Especially does the emperor penguin keep alive under what appear to be impossible conditions. Yet, it is remarkable that this penguin is so marvelously adapted for its existence. What grand testimony this is to its Masterful Designer, the Creator, Jehovah God!