Life on the rocks, with a splash
Emperor penguins are the largest of the 17 species of penguins. Adults stand about 4 feet tall (1.2 m), and can weigh up to 90 pounds (40 kg). Emperor penguins typically live about 20 years in the wild.
They also live the furthest south, spending their entire live on or near Antarctica. They live in enormous colonies of anywhere from 500 to 20,000 breeding pairs. There are roughly half a million emperor penguins alive today.
Emperor penguins are excellent swimmers, reaching speeds of up to 12 miles an hour (19 kph). They propel themselves underwater by flapping their wings with the same motion that other birds use to fly through the air. They can twist, turn and quickly change direction when chasing prey.
Scientists have recorded emperors diving as much as 869 feet (265 m), and staying underwater for up to 18 minutes—both records for diving birds.
Not hunted by humans, the emperor penguins’ natural enemies are the leopard seal and the killer whale. Seabirds will sometimes snatch eggs and chicks.
Cute fuzzy baby penguins
Unlike most birds, which lay eggs in the spring, emperor penguins breed in the winter. They form colonies, often near the foot of ice cliffs, which offer some protection from frigid Antarctic winds. The female lays a single egg then leaves, waddling up to 50 miles (80 km) across the ice to open water, where she will spend the next two months feeding on fish. The fathers hold the eggs on the tops of their feet, and blanket them with a warm layer of feathered skin called a brood pouch.
Male emperors spend the winter on Antarctica’s open ice, the only animal to do so. Temperatures can drop to more than 90 degrees below zero! The penguins protect themselves from the cold by huddling together in large groups. They take turns on the windy outer edge of the circle, then moving to the inside to warm up. Over the winter, a male emperor can lose up to half his body weight.
After about nine week, the eggs hatch. Chicks have fluffy, downy feathers, often mistaken for fur, to keep them warm. Around the same time, the mothers return to feed the chicks, and the fathers—who haven’t eaten in two months—now take off for the ocean. The chicks are ready to fend for themselves in about six months.