Apr 25

Every year, April 25th marks World Penguin Day, a chance to celebrate these popular and charismatic birds. These iconic flightless birds range from the large, well-known emperor penguin to the tiny, aptly name little penguin, and all are well adapted to the environments in which they live.

Photo of king penguins allopreening

King penguins

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here at ARKive we thought we would celebrate all things penguiny by taking a closer look at these fascinating birds.

Icon of the Antarctic

Photo of emperor penguins huddle together during blizzard

Emperor penguins huddling together during a blizzard

At over one metre tall, the emperor penguin is the largest penguin species. One of the most iconic animals of the Antarctic, this hardy bird is well adapted to the cold, with a relatively small head, beak and flippers to reduce heat loss, and layers of tightly packed, scale-like feathers to keep it warm and dry. Like other penguins, it also has a thick layer of fat that acts as insulation and an energy store. Male emperor penguins incubate a single egg throughout the harsh Antarctic winter, when temperatures can drop to an incredible minus 60ºC. The males balance the eggs on their feet, and huddle together to keep warm.

Coping in the heat

Photo of African penguin colony on beach

African penguins on beach

Although typically associated with cold environments, not all penguins live in the Antarctic. The African penguin breeds in southern Africa, where it has to deal with potentially high temperatures. To protect its nest against the heat, the African penguin often nests in burrows or in the shade of boulders or bushes. The most northerly penguin species is the Galapagos penguin, which is found near the equator.

Super swimmers

Photo of emperor penguins descending to feed

Emperor penguins swimming underwater

All penguins are superb swimmers, with streamlined bodies and flipper-like wings which give them great speed underwater. Penguins can cope with long, deep dives, and some species spend as much as 75% of their lives at sea. Compared to flying birds, which have light, hollow bones, penguins have heavy, solid bones which aid diving. Legs set far back on the body help penguins to steer underwater, but mean they walk clumsily on land.

Well-dressed water birds

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

Northern rockhopper penguins

Penguins are characterised by their distinctive black and white colour patterns. Known as ‘countershading’, this pattern provides camouflage underwater, helping the penguin to avoid detection by predators and prey. When seen from above, the penguin’s dark back blends in with the dark ocean depths, and when seen from below its white belly blends in with the light from the sky. Penguin species are most easily told apart by the distinctive patterns on their head and neck, and some species even sport quite colourful hairdos!

Sociable breeders

Photo of large king penguin breeding colony

Large breeding colony of king penguins

Penguins often form huge breeding colonies that may number hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs, and the stains left by the droppings of so many birds can sometimes be seen from space. Penguins usually form monogamous pairs in each breeding season. Nesting sites vary between species, and can include sea ice, rock, beaches, or even coastal forest, in the case of the Fiordland crested penguin.

Fishy diet

Photo of Galapagos penguins hunting fish

Galapagos penguins hunting fish

Penguins use their great swimming ability and speed underwater to catch a variety of fish, squid and crustaceans, including the shrimp-like krill. Amazingly, penguins are able to drink seawater when at sea, as they possess glands which filter excess salt from the blood, excreting it from the nasal passages in a concentrated salty fluid.

Fabulous feet

Close-up photo of adult gentoo penguin feet

Close-up of gentoo penguin feet

Penguins have a series of adaptations which help to reduce heat loss through the feet and prevent the feet from freezing when the bird is standing on ice. As warm blood enters the legs, it flows past cold blood returning from the feet. In this way, the blood entering the feet is cooled, reducing heat loss, and the blood returning to the body is warmed again. Penguins can also reduce blood flow to their feet in freezing conditions, and may tip back on their heels to minimise the area of skin in contact with the ice.

Penguin predators

Leopard seal attacking an Adélie penguin chick

Adélie penguin chick being attacked by leopard seal

On land, penguins generally have few predators, although birds such as the southern skua may take their eggs and chicks, and adult penguins may also be attacked by the northern giant petrel. In the sea, penguins may be attacked by leopard seals and orcas.

Bad feather day

Photo of adult northern rockhopper penguin moulting

Moulting northern rockhopper penguin

Like most birds, penguins moult once a year, replacing worn and damaged feathers to keep their plumage in top condition. However, unlike most other birds, which moult a few feathers at a time, penguins moult all their feathers in one go, as missing just one or two would affect their waterproofing and put them at risk from the cold. Before its annual moult a penguin puts on weight, building up fat reserves which allow it to stay out of the water while it waits for its new feathers to grow. During this time it can take on a decidedly scruffy appearance!

Really quite cool

Photo of gentoo penguin scratching

Gentoo penguin scratching

Penguins are hugely popular birds and commonly appear in films, TV programmes and popular culture, being much loved for their comical appearance and upright, almost human-like walk. They are also hardy survivors, occurring in some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet.

Unfortunately, humans have also had negative impacts on penguin populations, through pollution, overfishing, coastal development and the effects of climate change. The International Penguin Conservation Working Group is helping to promote penguin conservation and to draw attention to the threats facing penguins, and with various research programmes also underway there is hope that these iconic birds can be protected into the future.

Why not join in the World Penguin Day celebrations yourself? You can explore more penguin photos, videos and factfiles on ARKive, or make a penguin mask with our Penguin Diversity education module.

Or, get in touch and let us know which species of penguin is your favourite and why!

Mar 6

As you may be aware, not only is this week the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of CITES, it is also Climate Week in the UK. The biggest climate change campaign in Britain, Climate Week aims to inspire us to create a more sustainable future through a range of activities.

Climate week logo

Throughout the course of the week schools, businesses, charities, councils and many other organisations will run over 3,000 events attended by around half a million people interested in finding out more about the future of climate change and what we can do to safeguard against its impacts.

With such a wide range of events on offer there is bound to be something for everyone so do try to attend if you can. Not only will it be informative, by the sounds of it you will also have a lot of fun. Activities include test driving electric vehicles, growing your own food in community allotments, a green building show with a Climate Week Pledge Wall, swapping clothes, books, toys and DVDs, developing a Community Energy Plan and even an event at Manchester United hosted by none other than England football coach Gary Neville. There are too many to list but more information can be found on the Climate Week website.

Polar bear jumping between ice floes

Polar bears are dependent on sea ice for its survival, but climate change is causing drastic reductions in the extent of ice cover

If you are unable to attend any events near you (or, alas there are no events in your proximity), we’ll do our best in this blog to give you an overview of climate change and why it is so important for us to safeguard our wildlife and environment against it.

About climate change

Without wanting to be too accusatory, there is no doubt that climate change is caused by man-made impacts on our planet. You may have heard it referred to as ‘global warming’, due to the steady rise in the Earth’s temperature that is occurring. Both terms are correct, however they actually refer to different phenomena. Climate change refers to the changes in climate which arise as a result of the increasing global temperature. These can include changes in precipitation patterns, increased incidence of drought, heat waves and other extreme weather conditions. In essence, global warming does not mean that we will all have increasingly warmer weather; the planet’s steadily rising temperature will be associated with changes across the world in climate pattern, and more extreme and unpredictable weather. Some places may well become hotter, but some will become colder, and others wetter or drier.

Atlantic krill

Antarctic krill die due to ocean acidification

These changes in climate may not sound like much, but they are creating huge problems on a global scale for both wildlife and people. The severity of storms and floods are increasing, and ruthless droughts are on the rise. The acidity of our seas is rising, affecting species such as coral and krill and destroying marine food chains that ultimately maintain the balance of life in the oceans. The lack of arctic ice in the summer creates a dire situation for polar bears as well as compounding global warming because the ice would usually serve to deflect sunlight away from the planet. The increased heat absorbed due to the absence of this natural deflection in turn causes permafrost to thaw, releasing trapped methane gas. This gas, along with carbon dioxide released by the process of deforestation and the warming oceans both serve to increase what is known as the greenhouse effect; some gases trap and retain the sun’s heat giving rise to this phenomenon.

Hawksbill turtle

Rising sea levels could wash away hawksbill turtle nests and decrease nesting habitat

As we can see, this process is not pretty, and we’ve only scratched at the surface of what is happening in this blog. Mass extinction of wildlife is predicted in the near future, including species such as polar bears and emperor penguins that will lose their habitat to melting ice and rising sea levels. Colourful corals such as the Acanthastrea coral will die as a result of ocean acidification. Also affected are species that live and breed on low-lying remote islands, for example marine turtles like the giant South American, hawksbill and leatherback turtles. There are too many to name here, but you can check out more species that will be affected by climate change on ARKive.

Staghorn coral

Climate change is already having measurable impacts on coral reefs worldwide

 

So, even if it’s just spreading the word on climate change, will you do your bit this Climate Week?

Find out more about climate change, the species it affects and what we can do to mitigate the effects on our Climate Change topic page.

Download Climate Week resources from the Climate Week website.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Jan 10

Invasive reindeer are to be eradicated from South Georgia in an attempt to save the unique environment of this sub-Antarctic island.

Reindeer are normally found in the Arctic

As well as being home to 3,000 reindeer, the island of South Georgia has many endemic species of fauna and flora that evolved in the absence of grazing pressures. These species are now struggling to survive in the reindeer’s overbearing presence, and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has announced plans to eradicate the population in an effort to save the island’s unique species.

Habitat destruction

Reindeer were first introduced to South Georgia by the Norwegians in the 1900s to provide fresh meat on whaling missions in Antarctica. The population was originally managed by regular hunting, but when whaling stations were shut down in the 1960s, all hunting ceased.

Since then, the reindeer population has increased dramatically to a point where the island’s flora and fauna can no longer cope. Reindeer trample the indigenous plants, threaten king penguins and other local birds by destroying their nests and habitat, and cause substantial soil erosion.

King penguins are just one of the species threatened by the presence of reindeer

The reindeer herd is currently restricted by glaciers to the only suitable grazing habitat, which is also the most biologically productive. However, the impending threat of climate change and glacial recession will serve to increase the damage caused by opening up access to the rest of the island.

The government has decided to eradicate the reindeer population on South Georgia on the grounds of responsible environmental management practices.

Reindeer are grazing on the most biologically productive parts of the island

Island restoration

The reindeer cull will be led by the Norwegian Sami herdsmen whose expertise will ensure the programme goes smoothly, and it is estimated that it will take place over two summers. Meat from the cull will not go to waste and will be sold on the Falkland Islands, since South Georgia has no permanent resident population.

The Sami herdsmen are experienced in handling reindeer

Scientists hope that this, alongside a rat eradication programme currently in progress, will restore the island of South Georgia by allowing native plant species and bird populations to recover. Two native bird species which scientists hope will benefit from the removal of rats and reindeer are the South Georgia pipit and the South Georgia pintail, a subspecies of the yellow-billed pintail.

The endemic South Georgia pintail will benefit from the eradication of rats and reindeer

 

Read more on this story at BBC News – South Georgia prepares to cull its invasive reindeer.

Find out more about the invasive reindeer population from the IUCN Species Survival Commission Invasive Species Specialist Group newsletter.

View photos and videos of reindeer on ARKive.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Aug 12
African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) photo

African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Species: African penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: The African penguin is the only penguin species to breed on the African continent.

The African penguin is also known as the ‘jackass penguin’ due to its loud, braying call. Feeding on fish such as anchovies and sardines, African penguins are strong swimmers and can reach speeds of 20km/hour in the water. The African penguin is known to breed on 24 islands in southern Africa. Pairs return to the same site each year to breed. Both adults take turns to incubate the eggs and, following hatching, adults will guard and regurgitate food to the chicks. After 30 days the chicks are left in crèches while the adults forage.

It is estimated that the current African penguin population is just 10% of what it was at the turn of the 20th Century. These penguins are currently threatened by depleted fish stocks due to overfishing and oil spills. All of the breeding areas of the African penguin in South Africa are protected as Nature Reserves, and work to rescue oiled African penguins has been shown to be successful. Work to conserve fish stocks is crucial to protect the African penguin from extinction.

Find out more about the African penguin on the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums website.

See images and videos of the African penguin on ARKive.

Mar 24

Although Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins share their western Antarctic Peninsula breeding grounds, new research has discovered that rising temperatures have been affecting the breeding cycles of the three species in different ways.

Photo of Gentoo penguin colony with chicks

Gentoo penguin colony with chicks. Gentoo penguin populations are thought to have increased on the Antarctic Peninsula

Tracking penguin colonies

Professor Heather Lynch and her colleagues from Stony Brook University used a combination of fieldwork and satellite imagery to track colonies of the three penguin species and monitor how their breeding cycles were affected by the region’s warming temperatures.

Currently, the Antarctic is considered to be one of the world’s most rapidly warming regions and is one of the areas most impacted by global climate change.

Photo of Adelie penguins walking along the beach

Adelie penguins walking along the beach. Adelie populations have declined in the Antarctic, possibly due to warming temperatures in the region

Shifting breeding cycles

According to Lynch’s research, warmer temperatures cause a shift in the breeding cycle, causing the Peninsula’s penguin inhabitants to lay their eggs earlier. The researchers found that the resident gentoo penguin population is able to adapt more quickly to this change, with these birds able to bring their egg laying dates forward by almost twice as much as the Adélie or chinstrap penguins. 

Lynch believes this may allow the gentoo penguin to better compete for the best nesting space. In addition, the gentoo prefers areas with less sea ice, and has been able to migrate further south into the Antarctic as the sea ice shrinks as a result of the warming temperatures.

While gentoo penguins are year-round residents on the Antarctic Peninsula, Adélie and chinstrap penguins migrate to the Peninsula to breed. The researchers believe that the Adélie and chinstrap penguins are not aware of the local conditions in the region until they arrive, and have not been able to advance their breeding cycles as rapidly as the gentoo penguin.

Chinstrap and Adélie penguins also rely more heavily on sea ice due to their dependence on Antarctic krill, a species which lives under the sea ice for parts of its lifecycle, for food.

Photo of Gentoo penguin adult and chick

Gentoo penguin adult and chick

Changing penguin populations

As a result of changing conditions in the region, the number of gentoo penguins has been increasing on the Antarctic Peninsula, while populations of both Adélie and chinstrap penguins have noticeably dwindled in recent years.

Analyses carried out by Lynch and her team have confirmed that populations of the Adélie penguin have decreased at almost all of its breeding locations on the Antarctic Peninsula. The researchers have also helped to resolve previous contradictory studies that suggest that the chinstrap penguin may benefit from decreasing sea ice, and have instead shown that populations of this species are also decreasing in the region.

The work by Lynch and her team has been published as a series of papers online in Polar Biology, Ecology and Marine Ecology Progress Series (MEPS).

Photo of chinstrap penguins on beach

Chinstrap penguins on beach. Chinstrap populations have also suffered as a result of rising Antarctic temperatures

Read the Stony Brook University press release about Lynch’s work.

Find out more about the Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins on ARKive.

For more information on the Antarctic visit ARKive’s Antarctic ecoregion page.

Interested in how climate change is affecting the world’s species? Find out more on ARKive’s climate change pages, or enter our creative climate change challenge!

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

About

RSS feedArkive.org is the place for films, photos and facts about endangered species. Subscribe to our blog today to keep up to date!

Email updates

Sign up to receive a regular email digest of Arkive blog posts.
Preferred frequency:

Arkive twitter

Twitter: ARKive