Latin name: Aptenodytes forsteri

Population: at least 500,000

Conservation Status: Least Concern (IUCN, 2009)

Length: 1 – 1.3 m

Weight: 20 to 41 kg

Mating/Breeding: Emperor penguins travel to colonial nesting areas in March or early April, when pair formation and breeding occurs. In May or early June a single, large (460 to 470 g) egg is laid and is passed to the male parent for incubation. Females then return to their foraging areas until the end of incubation. All egg laying and hatching is highly synchronous in colonies. When female penguins return to the breeding site, they bring a belly full of food that they regurgitate for the newly hatched chicks. Meanwhile, their duty done, male emperors take to the sea in search of food for themselves.

Mothers care for their young chicks and protect them with the warmth of their own brood pouches. In December, Antarctic summer, the pack ice begins to break up and open water appears near the breeding site, just as young emperor penguins are ready to swim and fish on their own.

Hunting Habits: Emperor penguins search for their food in the open water of the Southern Ocean or in ice-free polynyas (an area of open water) and tidal cracks in pack ice. They have been recorded diving to depths of 400 to 450 meters and travelling 150 to 1000 km in a single foraging trip.

Feed on: The Emperor penguin feeds primarily on shoaling fish, small crustaceans and squid.

Threats: They are not globally threatened. Antarctic giant petrels and skuas are the primary predators of chicks in colonies, taking from 7 to 34% of young. Leopard seals take young when they enter the sea after moulting and adults. Adults are also taken by killer whales.

Colour/Looks: The Emperor Penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species. The dorsal side and head are black and sharply delineated from the white belly, pale-yellow breast and bright-yellow ear patches. Like all penguins it is flightless, with a streamlined body, and wings stiffened and flattened into flippers for a marine habitat.

Where found: Emperor penguins live in 40 known colonies south of latitude 65°, and there are three regional populations, in East Antarctica, the Ross Sea, and the Weddell Sea area. They spend their lives on the open ice—and even breed during the harsh winter.

Interesting Trivia:

  • Emperor penguins are excellent swimmers, reaching speeds up to 3.4 meters per second. Emperors have been recorded diving for as long as 18 minutes to depths of more than 400 meters. On most dives, they spend 2.5 to 9 minutes holding their breath under water.
  • Their bodies are designed to withstand temperatures of -10°C (14°F) before it must use body energy to keep warm.
  • Emperor penguins walk slowly and do not hop. The maximum walking speed for emperors is 2.8 kph (1.7 mph). Emperor penguins are also known to toboggan – sliding across ice on their bellies.
  • Its specific name (Aptenodytes forsteri) is in honour of the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his second Pacific Voyage.
  • Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the Antarctic explorer, said: “Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an Emperor Penguin”
  • The French documentary La Marche de l’Empereur (March of the Penguins) (2005) told the story of the penguins’ reproductive cycle. The subject has been covered for the small screen twice by the BBC and presenter David Attenborough, first in episode five of the 1993 series on the Antarctic Life in the Freezer, and again in the 2006 series Planet Earth. The computer-animated movie Happy Feet (2006) features Emperor Penguins as its primary characters, with one in particular that loves to dance.

More info:

Hadoram Shirihai, A complete guide to Antarctic wildlife (2002)

David McGonigal & Lynn Woodworth, Antarctica and the Arctic. The complete encyclopedia (2001)