Most people know that penguins live in Antarctica, but that’s only part of the story.
Penguins are divided into two groups: wingless divers include Emperors and Kings, and brush-tailed penguins are Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins.
Of the 17 species, only four – Emperors, Adelies, Chinstraps and Gentoos – actually breed on the continent. Seven other species live and breed in the surrounding Antarctic region.
[TRIP TRIVIA: There is at least one tropical penguin, so pack a bathing suit for this expedition. The Galapagos Penguin lives in the waters near the Galapagos Islands. This equatorial species molts twice a year, unlike its cold-weather relatives.]
Emperors are the big handsome stars of March of the Penguins. These impressive fellows closely resemble their next smallest relative, King penguins, with slightly different neck markings. Despite the similarity, these species live in dramatically different environments. The Emperors live and breed on ice in the southernmost harshest conditions. The Kings live on the mild sub-Antarctic islands.
Like the Emperors, Adelie penguins live in the deep south, though they are also found in other parts of the Antarctic region. Adelies are much smaller (11 pounds / 5 kg). They’re the classic black and white penguins with blue eyes.
The brush-tailed penguins are fairly tall, though not as big as Emperors and Kings. These birds nest on the land around the continent and its islands anyplace the snow subsides. Some of these rookeries are thousands of years old – older than any modern city in the United States.
[TRIP TRIVIA: Early travelers to Antarctica discovered a species they called the Woolly penguin… these fluffy birds were actually penguin chicks. Once the chicks molt their baby feathers, they eventually look like their parents.]
All In The Family
Penguins are great parents. They go through trials and tribulations and self-endangerment to protect their eggs and raise their young.
Courtship in the colony is loud and raucus with much strutting and displaying by eager males. Some penguins mate for life, while some mate for one season. Husbands and wives are extremely cooperative during the child-rearing process. They share equally in caring and feeding duties – while one parent hunts for food, the other stays with the egg or chick until it is self-sufficient. Like other birds, penguins regurgitate food into their chicks’ mouths.
Emperor and King Penguins don’t build nests. They balance the egg on top of their feet and then tuck it under their bellies, where they warm the egg on a bare patch of skin.
In a city where everybody looks alike, parents and chicks recognize each by their unique singing voices. Penguins might be a little near-sighted, but they have excellent hearing.
Other Antarctic species, including Gentoos and Adelies, build nests of rock where they sit on the eggs. Because of that, snow-free beach-front property is at a premium. Penguins can’t trust their neighbors – they have a bad habit of stealing each others’ rocks and even each others’ chicks.
Emperors and Kings typically have one egg, while brush-tailed penguins have two eggs. Though both usually fledge, only one survives under normal conditions.
As chicks grow up and become too cool for their parents, they hang out in gangs called crèches. This lets mom and pop take some time off for fishing.
Don’t let this new independence fool you. Though these fluffy kids look bigger than their parents, they still chase down the old folks at meal-time.
[TRIP TRIVIA: For a power vacation, follow a female Emperor penguin on her 60-mile (100 km) journey from home in the heart of the continent – where she leaves her precious egg with her spouse – to the sea. While the male incubates the egg through winter, the female hunts enough food to sustain herself for the trip back AND feed her mate and offspring. Tough hike, even on a full stomach. Start training now.]