January 20th is World Penguin Day. These delightful little creatures have been featured in movies like Mary Poppins, Happy Feet, The Penguins of Madagascar, and Mr Popper’s Penguins, as well as documentaries like March of the Penguins – but how much do you really know about the penguin?
Most people believe penguins live in cold climates (like the North Pole), but in reality, there are just 17 varieties of penguins, and all are native to the Southern Hemisphere. Penguins are found in Antarctica, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, the Falkland Islands, and the Galapagos Islands. Of those found in captivity in the Northern Hemisphere, most are African penguins from the warm coastal waters, and Humboldt penguins (native to South America). Penguin’s vestigial wings have evolved into flippers that make them wonderful swimmers (but terrible flyers).
The best known variety of classic ‘tuxedo’marked penguins are the Emperor and Adelie penguins. Emperor penguins live in the Weddell and Ross Sea regions of the Antarctic. Their beautiful black, white and yellow markings are quite distinctive. The largest of the species, Emperors grow up to 40 inches tall and weigh up to 90 pounds. They eat squid, large fish, and crustaceans, and can dive to depths of up to 700 feet in pursuit of food. They can also swim underwater for up to 20 minutes at a time before surfacing for air.
Adelie penguins are the smallest penguin found in the Antarctic – standing approximately 30 inches tall when grown. There are an estimated 2.5 million pairs of Adelie penguins living in colonies, also known as rookeries. They can dive up to 500 feet beneath the surface of the water in their search for food like fish and krill (microscopic marine life).
Penguins lay eggs which are cared for by the mother and the father. After laying eggs, the mother will head out to sea to feed, leaving the father to watch over the eggs and keep them warm and safe. Penguin dads might stand watch over their future offspring for up to 10 days at a time! Adelie penguin eggs mature quite quickly; most hatch after a month of tender loving care. Penguin chicks stay close to their parents for the first month or so of life.
Some of the threats facing penguins in the wild include birds, seals, sharks, killer whales, and climate change. Penguins rely on cold, nutrient-rich ocean water for their food supply. Melting polar ice caps and El Niño events bring warmer waters. Cold water is prevented from reaching the surface, which means extreme food shortages for some varieties of penguins, and the potential collapse of their colonies – which could result in extinction. Others seem to be adapting to the environmental changes, showing the resilience of the species. Hopefully, these wonderful creatures will survive and continue to delight people for centuries to come.