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Wildlife Guide: Emperor Penguin Facts

6 min read

Emperor penguins are known as the largest penguin in the world, and popular for their starring role in the 2006 musical comedy Happy Feet. Consequently, the chance to see them entices many polar travelers.

These flightless birds spend their entire lives on the ice shelves of the Antarctic, breeding and raising their young on what is known as fast ice - a floating ice platform that is connected to the land or ice shelves. The largest and most rarely visited colony is at Snow Hill Island, deep in the Weddell Sea.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

Continue reading to learn more about these fascinating birds, including their unique incubation practices, where you're most likely to see them, and how large an emperor penguin can grow.

Regional Habitat: Antarctica

Name: Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)

Length: 3.2-4.4 ft (100-122cm)

Weight: 55-100 pounds (25 - 45 kg)

Conservation status: Near threatened

Diet: Mostly fish (Antarctic silverfish), but can also include cephalopods like squid and crustaceans such as krill.

Appearance: Emperor penguins have white bellies with black backs and heads, and yellow markings around the neck, similar to the king penguin. When swimming, their white fronts camouflage them from predators with the light above, and their black backs camouflage them, as well.

Where to see emperor penguins: Antarctic penguin tours would obviously be the best way to see Emperor penguins.

Emperor penguins are primarily found on Snow Hill Island which you can explore on expedition Emperor Penguin Quest: Expedition to Snow Hill, a 14-day adventure on the new polar ship, Ultramarine. Learn more by reading our detailed guide to exploring Snow Hill.

Another penguin tour option is the South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari adventure. Remember to choose the best time to see penguins when you're planning your trip.

Also consider the Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings voyage for a 20-day adventure with stops at various islands and your chance to see emperor penguins and other species of penguins in their natural habitats.

How long do emperor penguins live?

Emperor penguins live for 15 - 20 years on average.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

Adult penguins spend most of their days eating to increase their body fat to help keep them warm during the winters and breeding season. An adult penguin eats an average of 2-3kg of food a day, but that can double when they need to feed chicks or build up their body fat for the long winter.

Threats to emperor penguin lifespans are the leopard seals and orcas known to prey on emperor penguins at the edge of the water or while they are in the water.

How many emperor penguins are there?

Estimates suggest there are 595,000 adult emperor penguins currently living in Antarctica.

By using satellite technology in space, scientists in 2012 discovered and counted emperor penguin populations, and discovered previously unknown emperor penguin colonies at their breeding sites.

This brings the world's total count to 54 colonies - many of which remain unvisited.

Emperor penguin characteristics

Unlike many other penguins who use nests, emperor penguins who are sexually mature at 3 years old, incubate a single egg through the dark and long winter months.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

During breeding season, breeding pairs engage in singing and dancing that includes chirps, cries and head swings to attract their mate. After mating, the female emperor penguin lays one egg in May or June, before she passes it to her mate to incubate while she leaves for the next several weeks (approximately two months) to the sea to feed.

Male emperor penguins must carefully balance the egg on their feet for the next 65 to 75 days (more than two months!) to keep the eggs warm. They do this by keeping the egg in a specifically evolved brood pouch, which is a chamber in their abdomen with feathered skin lining, before the eggs hatch and fluffy chicks emerge.

Once the chicks hatch, their mothers have typically returned and the chicks will stay warm in the female penguins brood pouch. Without their parents brood pouches the young penguins would freeze in the harsh Antarctic conditions in less than an hour.

Interestingly, during the long incubation period when males are responsible for the egg, male emperor penguins do not eat and they lose almost half their body fat that they built up during the summer months. During the long, cold months of the Antarctic winter (when temperatures are as low as -50°C) emperor penguins are specially adapted to survive.

Emperor penguin feathers have two layers, and the penguins also have feathers on their legs to help keep them warm. Emperor penguins also work hard to maintain their fat reserves, and their beaks and flippers are significantly smaller than those of other penguins so their bodies are better able to regulate their heat.

Emperor penguins are also known to huddle with colonies of chicks and adults to generate warmth with their body heat. Adults and chicks in a colony gather to stand closely together and continuously move around so no single penguin has to stand too long on the outside where it's the coldest.

In turn, each penguin spends time near the outside of the huddle, then gets a chance to be warmed by others and protected from the harsh winds as they move closer to the middle.

An emperor penguin colony can range in numbers upwards of 5,000. The largest colony is estimated to have 25,000 penguins and is located at Coulman Island.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

At around 7 weeks old, juvenile penguins form their own groupings, called creches, to help them stay warm and protected, while still relying on their parents to feed them. Emperor penguin chicks can be recognized by their parents by their unique cry and parents use this recognition tool to ensure the chicks they feed are their own.

Every year, most commonly after the breeding season, adult emperor penguins go through a molting process and lose their feathers. While the penguins often look unwell during this process, it could be that this process helps to replace old feathers that may no longer work as well in keeping the penguins warm.

Where are emperor penguins found?

Emperor penguins live exclusively in Antarctica, so an expedition to Antarctica is the best place to see penguins in the wild.

They spend their lives on the Antarctic ice, pack ice, and ice shelves and have evolved to survive the extreme cold and harsh winds of their environment.

Emperor penguins live in groups, often of at least 5,000, that are called colonies. Some emperor penguin colonies are so large they can be seen from space. The largest is thought to be the colony at Snow Hill which consists of 4,000 breeding pairs of penguins and, eventually, their chicks.

How big is an emperor penguin?

Adult emperor penguins are about 47.2 inches (120cm) tall, roughly the same height as an average kindergarten student, and weigh an average of 88 pounds (40kg). This makes them the largest of the 18 species of penguin.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

While their weight does change throughout the year, especially for males who can lose half their body weight during breeding season when they don't eat for up to 4 months, they are still the largest of the penguin species.

How fast can a penguin run?

While on land, emperor penguins walk or waddle at speeds of 1.55mph (2.5kph), but they can move much faster if they find a snow-covered hill and slide down on their bellies.

While they are not the only penguin species to lay on their stomachs on the ice and move around using their legs, emperor penguins are known to use this method of transportation, also known as tobogganing.

Emperor Penguins
Photo by David Merron

If the emperor penguin was going to the bird Olympics, their sport would not be running. They are, however, incredible divers. The emperor penguin is responsible for the longest recorded dive at nearly 28 minutes, and they dive deeper than any other birds in the world, their deepest dive on record was 1850ft (564m).

Emperor penguins are specially equipped to make such impressive dives, by shutting down their non-vital organs to help conserve oxygen and with strong, solid bones that can take on the extreme pressure of their deep dives. This bone structure contrasts that which is most common in other bird species who have evolved hollow bones to aid with flight.

Emperor penguins can also uniquely launch themselves out of the water after a long dive. To do this, they trap air in their rear feathers and can use that air to swim twice as fast as usual during their swim back to the surface.

Seeing emperor penguins in the water or on ice is certainly a sight to see, book your trip next adventure today for your chance to see these fascinating animals in person!

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