Emperor Penguins: Unique Breeding Cycle

Courtesy of National Science Foundation US Antarctic Program Photo Library.

Have you watched the movie Happy Feet? Did you fall in love with Mumble?  Mumble is an Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forester); a penguin species that lives in Antarctica.

Mumble and his extended family have an unusual Breeding Cycle.

A poster illustrates the lifecycle of an emperor penguin. Courtesy of National Science Foundation US Antarctic Program Photo Library. Image Credit: Zina Deretsky, NSF.

They are the only species that breeds during the Antarctic Winter, when it can get wildly cold and windy. Near the coast, the temperature can fall to -40°C (-40°F), and wind gusts can reach up to 200 km/hr. (125 mi/hr).  Brrrr!

Breeding Cycle

In the austral winter, around March, Emperor Penguins travel 100-160 km (60-100 mi) to their breeding grounds or rookeries, which are on stable ice.

After arriving at the rookery, the courting rituals begin.  Once the penguins pair up, they are mated for the season.

Around mid-May, still in the frigid Antarctic winter, the mothers each lay one egg and eventually pass their precious cargo to the fathers. The fathers will incubate the eggs by holding them on their feet and tucking them into brood pouches.

Male emperor penguin incubating an egg. Photo Credit: R Mundy. Source: tinyurl.com/ztop3k4

At this time, both parents have NOT eaten anything in awhile, and they are getting hungry! So, after laying the eggs and passing them to the fathers, the mothers travel to the sea to eat and collect food for their soon-to-be-born chicks.

While the mothers are gathering food, the fathers continue to incubate the eggs for 65 days in the Antarctic winter!  After the mothers’ return, the parents switch places, and the eggs begin to hatch. After the chicks emerge, the mothers feed the chicks and the fathers trek to the sea to eat—after fasting for almost 4 months!

The chicks grow rapidly, so the parents take turns brooding the chicks and and gathering food.  Once the chicks are able to stand on the ice by themselves, both parents can travel to the sea to feed and bring back food.

Adult penguins create creches for the chicks. Photo Credit: Fred Olivier. Source: tinyurl.com/nvrk8st

By early December, in the austral summer, the chicks are nearly as big as their parents and begin to molt (shed their down and grow feathers).  The maturing chicks become known as fledglings, and the parents encourage the fledglings to leave the nest to find food.  In December or January, all the birds (fledglings and adults) travel to the sea and spend the austral summer at the ice edge, where the youngsters learn how to hunt and survive Antarctic’s frigid waters and scary predators.

When is your summer?  Where do you spend them?  What do you do?