The emperor penguin is considered one of the top wildlife attractions in Antarctica. These are the largest penguins in the world. They are adapted for deep diving and extended stay underwater.

Emperor penguins are the only animals that can withstand temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) and 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour winds of Antarctica’s harsh winters. They spend the entire winter in the unforgiving conditions of the frozen continent.

While almost all other wildlife in Antarctica travel to milder climates, emperor penguins stay. They do this because the new chicks will fully develop in the middle of summer when the survival rate is much higher.

Scientific NameAptenodytes forsteri
Size110-130 cm
SpeedUp to 15 km/h (water), up to 3 km/h (land)
WeightUp to 45 kg
Lifespan15-50 years
FoodFish, krill, jellyfish
PredatorGiant Petrels, Leopard Seals
FeatureLargest penguin in the world
Eye colorBrown
Beak LengthA little over 8 cm
Wing SizeAbout 36 cm
Current Population595,000
Conservation StatusNearly Threatened

Table of Contents

Facts on Emperor Penguin

Discovery of Emperor Penguins

  1. These species of penguins were first described in 1844 by English zoologist George Robert Gray, based on specimens brought back by the Erebus and Terror expedition members. 
  1. The species is named in honor of the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster, who accompanied James Cook on his second trip to the Pacific and then identified five other penguin species. 
  1. The first colony was discovered by Doctor Edward Adrian Wilson in 1902, during the Terra Nova expedition. The first egg was discovered on a piece of ice floating by James Clark Ross’s expedition in 1840 but not identified until 1905.

Emperor Penguins Physical Features

Emperor Penguin’s physical features
  1. There are no distinct differences in size between the male and the female emperors; both reach a height of about 49 inches tall. Their appearance from afar unmistakably identifies them. 
  1. Seen from the side, the royal feathered penguin has black and white plumage and black spots running down the back and widening to the flippers with no brood patches, while the white color predominates on the chest and belly.
  1. There are pale yellow or orange spots on the chest that differentiate the subgroup. These penguins are widely known for their long-distance travel. 
  1. Adult birds can move away at a distance of 50 – 120 km from the places of nesting colonies. Migration occurs in groups of thousands of individuals.
  1. Emperor penguins are often mistaken for King Penguins of Snow Hill Island, the second largest penguin species. Not to forget Adelie Penguin of Ross Sea!

Habitat of Emperor penguins

  1. These enormous flightless birds are distributed between 66 and 77 parallel south latitudes. Emperor penguins build nesting colonies next to icebergs and ice-covered rocks to receive additional protection from the piercing wind.
  1. The habitat of the largest emperor penguin colony is in Cape Washington. The number of individuals reaches 20 – 25 thousand nesting pairs.
  1. Islands where these birds live: Taylor Glacier, Queen Maud Land, Heard Island, Coleman Island, and Victoria island
  1. Penguins feel comfortable in the most severe conditions of the polar cold when the air temperature drops to -46°C and the wind speed reaches 160 km/h.

Emperor penguins facts of holding breath

  1. A penguin’s average heart rate is 60 beats per minute (bpm). When they prepare before diving, their heart starts beating up to 200 bpm: they hyperventilate and gorge their blood with oxygen. As they burst the water’s surface, the penguins’ hearts suddenly slow, and their heart rate drops to barely 20 bpm.

Are Emperor penguins Most Loyal Mate?

  1. When the male emperor penguin is ready to mate, it arrives at the mating place before the females; the preparation begins to attract the female by making romantic scenes. Its best strategy is to put its beak on her chest, breathe, and then radiate a 2-second call.
  1. When the pair accept each other, they stand close to each other and extend their necks, looking at each other for a few minutes. Courtship is quite a ritual. When a male courts a female, she puffs out her chest and tilts her head back, and both begin to make loud, high-pitched braying sounds. 
  1. They can scream at each other for hours. Many call these screams “the song of the heart” since when a couple of penguins mate, it is for life. They are one of the most faithful and loyal species.
  1. When this ritual is finished, penguins walk through the community together. They meet in the same place known every year. Each memorizes the other’s song so well that they manage to locate each other after months of separation. 

Breeding Facts of Emperor penguins

chicks of emperor penguins in Antarctica with mother
Chicks of emperor penguins in Antarctica with mother
  1. Emperor penguins breed in large colonies. Reproduction occurs in late March and early April when males and females return from searching for food at sea. 
  1. A female lays a single egg in late May or early June, just before the start of the Antarctic winter. The male carries the incubation exclusively and begins immediately after laying the eggs. 
  1. The female penguin embarks on a journey of about 80 to 160 km from the colony to the sea. It does not return to the colony until the incubation period is over. 
  1. Incubation lasts 60-68 days through high winds and freezing temperatures that routinely drop below -50 °C. Without access to food, the male lives on his fat reserves. 
  1. The male holds the egg on tiptoe, placing a layer of skin over the egg to protect it from adverse conditions. During violent winter storms, colony members gather for mutual protection in a packed crowd called huddles.
  1. In August, the young hatch, and the females return to the colony to release the males. Each chick stays at the feet of one of its parents until it is strong enough to withstand the ice-cold of Antarctica on its own. 
  1. The number of “unemployed” adult penguins in the colony increases with the addition of those who have lost eggs or chicks, and these birds are known to interfere with parents who have chicks and cause higher chick mortality.
  1. The Emperor Penguin’s protection group against cold and predators forms during the nursery or creche phase. The fuzzy coat is replaced by a coat of short, stiff feathers, similar in composition to the adult but usually a little different in color. 
  1. Once the molt is complete, the juvenile penguin leaves the colony, searching for its food at sea. Juveniles fully develop in December and January during the first year of life. They return to the colony to breed from the fifth year onwards. Emperor penguins can live 20 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity.

How Small is Emperor penguins Eggs?

  1. In proportion to their size and compared to other birds, emperor penguins lay the smallest eggs worldwide. Emperor penguin eggs weigh just 0.4 kilograms, only about 1.5% of the total mass of an adult bird.

Emperor penguins Body as Tool for Movement

  1. The feet of these animals act like the clappers that men used to walk on snow. These strong limbs allow it to hold on firmly to frozen water. The emperor penguin’s body is equipped to allow it to use its belly for support. In this way, they only slide on the snow to move quickly.
  1. Their whole body is suitable for diving, during which they hunt for food: their bones, for example, are dense and heavy to facilitate deep diving, while the wings, not suitable for flying, work like small “fins” that allow them to reach speeds of 20-30 km / h underwater.

Way of Living

Emperor penguin propelling out of water
  1. Penguins are collective animals. In water and on land, they keep in small groups, and during the breeding season, they unite in huge colonies, the number of which varies from 300 to 10 thousand individuals or more. 

Emperor penguins Predators and prey

  1. They are experienced divers who can stay underwater for nearly 22 minutes. Emperor Penguins survive on krill, fish, and squid that gather under or near the edges of ice shelves. 
  1. Their predators are aquatic birds and mammals. The Antarctic Giant Petrel seabird is the leading terrestrial predator of emperor penguin chicks. For example, one-third of chick deaths in some colonies are caused by the Giant Petrel. 
  1. In addition to killing live chicks, these seabirds eat dead emperor penguins. Another terrestrial predator is the Antarctic Skua. However, it mainly looks for dead chicks because the live ones are too big to kill.
  1. Aquatic mammals that hunt emperor penguins include leopard seals and killer whales. If the mum or dad dies or is killed during the breeding season, the surviving parent will sadly have no choice but to abandon their eggs or chicks to hunt for food in the sea before he starves to death.
  1. Emperor penguins are exposed to the threat of predators when they search for food. The color of the penguin’s fur helps them evade detection by predators when they are underwater. 
  1. If a predator looks down at the emperor penguin, the dark fur on its back helps camouflage it from the ocean’s dark depths below. If predators swim below and look up, the white feathers on the penguins’ bodies help them camouflage themselves with the colors of the sky above the water’s surface. 

Unique Scientific phenomena

  1. Penguins are saved from the cold by a thick layer of subcutaneous fat and a three-layer plumage impenetrable to water. It protects birds from the cold on the shore and in the sea. 
  1. Air bubbles between the feathers create additional protection. All this creates conditions for reliable thermal insulation of birds. In addition, they have an infallible strategy to keep warm: they form a grouping in a circular shape, and the individuals in the middle are warmer and protected from the strongest wind.
  1. Penguins move from minute to minute, pushing the other forward until they reach the center. The circle doesn’t stop: after being warmed up, those in the center get hot and jump outside, where they try to cool off because, in the middle of the group, their body temperature can reach up to 37.5 degrees centigrade, and they need to dissipate this heat. 
  1. Once outside, they clean their feathers and eat fresh snow; sometimes, they get lost in the group, but they return to it when they feel cold again.

How do emperor penguins communicate?

  1. Penguins use sign language and call to communicate with each other. To communicate something to each other, they shake their heads, flap their wings, or scream, and the screams resemble the sounds of a trumpet.

New Emperor Colonies discovered in 2020

  1. Satellite images revealed nearly 20% more Emperor Penguin colonies in Antarctica than previously thought. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used satellite data from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission to track penguin guano (or feces) to monitor the presence of thousands of these animals.
  1. The findings, published in the journal “Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation,” reveal 11 new colonies. Three of them had previously been identified but were never confirmed. 
  1. Although penguins are tiny to show up on satellite images, it’s easy to spot giant patches of ice from penguins’ droppings at the 10 m pixel resolution that the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission offers. These brownish patches have allowed scientists to locate and track penguin populations.

Conservation state of Emperor penguins

Emperor penguins at emperor penguin snow hill 2010
  1. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the emperor penguin a near-threatened species. Ecologists have observed population decline in several emperor penguin colonies. A 50% population decline was observed between 1950 and 2000 in a colony in the Terre Adelie region in East Antarctica. 
  1. Many ecologists attribute this population decrease to global warming and climatic changes. The penguin spends nearly all of its time on or near the permanent ice pack to be near its prey, which also depends on sea ice coverage. The ice shelves also provide breeding grounds and nurseries for the emperor penguin. 
  1. With the melting of large areas of sea ice, such as the loss of 60 percent of the Larsen Ice Shelf between 1995 and 2002 and the partial collapse of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in 2008, the Emperor Penguin’s habitat declined, resulting in fewer chicks being produced and higher chick mortality rates. 
  1. Despite discovering additional colonies, which brought the estimated number of breeding pairs to over 275,000, scientific models predict dramatic population reductions in emperor penguin colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula as sea ice cover falls. 

Hollywood Animated Movies and Documentaries

  1. The documentary “The March of the Penguins,” widely shown in theaters worldwide, tells the story of the Emperor Penguin’s reproductive cycle. This film was well-received by the public and critics, was awarded the Oscar for best documentary in 2006, and obtained four Cesar nominations (first film, music, sound, editing). 
  1. This subject has also been picked up twice by the BBC and presenter David Attenborough in his BBC series Dynasties and 2006 in Planet Earth. The main characters in the animated film Happy Feet (2006) are Emperor Penguins, one of whom is passionate about dancing. 

Extra Emperor penguins Facts

  • The Emperor penguins have a small cavity in their body in the abdomen region called the brood pouch, where they keep their egg safe.
  • All female and male penguins spend their entire lives in the Antarctic region, where there is an ongoing issue of fast ice melt in the present scenario.
  • According to the research, there are 54 breeding colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
  • The scale-like feathers are key to emperor penguin populations’ survival in the Antarctic environment. The layers of feathers provide adequate body heat and prevent heat loss in harsh conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do penguins love?

Finding their partners for life is penguins’ greatest joy. All species of penguin are not only romantic but also reliable fathers for hatching and caring for infants. 

Will penguin bite you?

Yes, Adult Emperor penguins can bite you. They have a beak of 8cm long, which is enough to pierce through your skin.

Do penguins suicide?

Some penguins do suicide. These amazing birds walk away from the seashore, away from their herd, towards their demise. Life in the antarctic continent is tough with cold antarctic waters, icy winds, chilly temperatures, and harsh environments.

What happens when penguins die?

When penguins die, their body will gradually decompose into icy conditions. Bacterias can speed up the process; eventually, only the skeleton will be left without its protective feathers, strong claws, and beautiful layer of scale.

Are penguins poisonous?

Penguins are not poisonous to touch or eat. Antarctic explorers were recorded to eat them during expeditions. 

These majestic creatures are the crown of the harsh climate of Antarctica. Their life cycle, traits, and faithfulness teach us a lot, but they are nearly threatened due to global warming and climate change. 

The Antarctic ice is melting, and the creatures are losing their habitat. Though their life span is extended in captivity, any creature’s true beauty lies in the wilderness. Urgent measures are needed for the conservation of such amazing animals.

(Last Updated on August 8, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Sadrish Dawadi is a Mountain Ecologist, an expert on the impact of climate change on humans, animals, and plant species. As an activist for animal welfare, he believes an animal's eyes can speak a great language of the planet's state and environmental condition.