Ever since March of the Penguins, the amazing adventures of Emperor Penguins are no longer a secret. While these large flightless birds hunt for fish by the Antarctic shore and in sea ice areas, they travel great distances into the heart of the icy continent to mate, breed and raise their young. After laying the egg, the female penguin makes her journey back to the water to feed. It is the male penguin’s responsibility to keep the egg warm during the Antarctic winter, with temperatures below -60°F - Not an easy task. He does so by balancing it on his feet and covering it with a flap of skin. To seek protection from the icy winds, all birds in the colony huddle together and take turns on the inside of the warming crowd.
The mothers return after two months with the food in their belly to feed their hatched chick and to relieve the male penguins from their post. It is now their turn to warm their young until it is old enough to withstand the icy winds by themselves and finally complete the journey to the sea on their own two feet.
The odds are not in the penguins’ favor on this harsh continent. From dropped eggs over snowstorms to leopard seals, there is a lot that stands in the way of a successful breeding season. However, the birds have managed to conquer Antarctica. A recent study by scientists of the British Antarctic Survey was able to determine their numbers more accurately than ever before. In cooperation with the U.S. National Science Foundation, the team had access to satellite images of the frozen continent, some specifically taken for this study. The high-resolution photographs show more than 40 colonies. They also allowed for the individual birds to be counted, but this sometimes proved to be difficult, as they, dark spots on the snowy landscape, had to be distinguished from their own shadows and scat. Antarctica’s total population of emperor penguins is now estimated at 595.000 animals, which, as a doubling of previous estimates, comes as a pleasant surprise.
Unfortunately, the majestic birds face threats to their numbers. Wide shrinkage of sea ice due to increasing temperatures leads to fewer hunting grounds and the disappearance of one whole colony has already been recorded. Although emperor penguins are not an endangered species, some predict that they might be by the end of this century. The use of satellite technology is an important step to being able to monitor the penguin populations and be aware of any drastic changes in their numbers – so that we can make sure that there are lots of Happy Feet.
Written by Paula Senff, Intern at ASOC