Saturday, December 27, 2008

Penguins gather in Antarctica

By Murray Wardrop

Emperor Penguin chicks face a fight for survival in their Antarctic home with temperatures plunging to -76F (-60C) and winds over 100mph.
Adult Emperor Penguins lean over a large, healthy chick they have raised. Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Photo: Barcroft Media

The young penguins on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica, only began moulting their juvenile grey plumage within the last two months but must prepare themselves for a bitter winter ahead.

But the chicks will now have to hunt for themselves when they get hungry because their parents stop feeding them at this time of year, so they become more independent.

By assembling in colonies, and huddling together, they can keep warm by rotating which of them stand in the centre of the group.

The emperor penguin is the largest of all penguins, easily recognised by its black cap, blue-grey neck, orange ear-patches and bills, and yellow breasts.

Recent research has projected that an increase in temperature of two degrees would kill off half the emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica as their ice pack habitat melted away.

The US government faced criticism from wildlife campaigners earlier this month after not including the emperor penguin among a list of seven species to be given protected status.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said there was insufficient evidence to list the emperor as threatened at present, citing uncertainty over climate change predictions.

Assembling at the breeding colonies early in winter, shortly after the sea ice has formed, emperor penguins breed during the perpetual darkness of the Antarctic winter, in March and April.

Gathering together near a solid iceberg, the female lays a single egg that she passes over to the male, who incubates the egg until it hatches.

The females return to the colonies seven to eight weeks after laying to relieve their mates and tend to the newly-hatched chicks.

By midsummer, the fledglings are independent and will be ready to breed in as little as four years.

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