George Clooney looks good in a tuxedo, but he’s got nothing compared to one of our favourite Antarctic species: the Emperor penguin! Have you seen the sheer gloss of their feathers and the dapper look they exude as they waddle across the sea ice? Sorry George, but we know which one we’d pick in a ‘best tux’ competition.  

It’s not just their devilish good looks that win us over; it’s also their social skills, mating rituals, and physical prowess. Intrigued? Read on for our 10 favourite Emperor penguin facts.

1. Wild Emperor Penguins Are Only Found in Antarctica 

While we love having Antarctica as our second home, the Emperor penguin is dedicated to the continent. Their official name is Aptenodytes forsteri; Aptenodytes means ‘without-wings diver’. They got their ‘Emperor penguin’ name in honour of Johann Reinhold Forster, a German naturalist onboard Captain James Cook’s second voyage. 

While other penguins build nests from sticks and feathers, the Emperor penguin lives and survives on the Antarctic sea ice. This characteristic makes them more elusive than other Antarctic penguins, and harder to spot on our Antarctic expeditions.

Curious about why there are no penguins in the Arctic? Find out here.  

2. Emperor Penguins Are Tall 

These beautiful flightless birds are majestic, dynamic and tall. In fact, they are the tallest penguins in the world! They range from 100-122cm, and are reasonably large, too, weighing anything from 25-45kg. The Emperor penguin’s lifespan is 15-20 years. 

Fun fact: Emperor penguins may be considered tall now, but the now-extinct mega penguin palaeeudyptes stood around 160cm tall. This ancient penguin lived some 37-40 million years ago.  

3. Emperor Penguins Rely on their Tux & Feathers to Survive in Antarctica   

While Clooney may wear his tux to get on a ‘best-dressed’ list, Emperor penguins use theirs for less vane reasons: camouflage. Or so it’s believed because science is split on why penguins are black and white. One theory is that penguins use their black backs to blend into the tumultuous ocean. Another argues it’s all thermodynamics with penguins using their black side to heat up in the sun. Dark feathers are tougher, too, giving the Emperor penguin better wear and tear.  

While all penguins have an annual moult, the Emperor penguin is one of only two breeds (the other is the Adélie) to do it off-land. Much like you clear your closet out of worn clothes, Emperor penguins shed their four layers of weather-beaten feathers over a month. This process leaves them with an almost-new coat. 

4. Emperor Penguins are Supreme Fishers 

Emperor penguins are adept at fishing. They dive into the sea to feed at depths of nearly 550m to snag Antarctic silverfish, krill and the occasional squid treat. They eat around 2-3kg daily or double if they are storing body fat for winter. Male Emperor penguins particularly need to store their body fat. They lose half their body weight during the four-month breeding process.  

While you might be chomping down on your seafood delicacies with your teeth, penguins use superhero-like fleshy spines. These line the inside of the mouth and help pull fish down their throats.  

5. Emperor Penguins Love Company 

Emperor penguins are social, communal and great team players. There are an estimated 595,000 Emperor penguins across the Antarctic, spread across 54 known colonies. These colonies (or penguineries, rookeries or waddles) allow the penguins to support each other during harsh climate conditions by huddling together. This has to be our favourite fascinating Emperor penguin fact.

In a huddle, the youngest chicks sit in the centre. The male adults provide extra warmth in their protective outer barrier. The adults then rotate positions, so no one penguin is left dealing with the burden of a blizzard up to 200km per hour at their back. Huddling reduces heat loss by about 50%, ensuring the stored fat can last longer. 

6. Emperor Penguins Sing a Love Song   

So, how does an Emperor penguin find its mate in a colony which has such a strict dress code? Through calling!  

The Emperor is the only species of penguin to breed during the Antarctic winter. In April, when the sea ice is thick enough, sexually mature Emperor penguins make their way to the breeding grounds ready for the May season. Food here is usually non-existent as they travel 50-150km across the harsh Antarctic landscape, hence the need to fatten up beforehand.  

Males arrive at the breeding grounds first and prep and preen ready for courtship. They then use a unique mating call to unite and reunite during the breeding process. Emperor penguins breed monogamously for a season but typically choose a different mate every year.  

7. Emperor Penguins are Dedicated Parents  

Female Emperor penguins pop out one egg a few days after copulation. Once laid, the female heads back to sea for up to two months. The male takes over their egg for that period, balancing it on his feet, covering it with his skin folds for warmth. 

As chicks are born without feathers, they are vulnerable to the elements. They need the dedication from their parents and colony huddles to survive. When the chick hatches, the female returns, and the male switches places.  

8. Emperor Penguin Chicks Get Ravenous 

It takes 65-75 days to grow the egg into an adorable Emperor penguin chick. It hatches covered in a down layer, which looks warm and fluffy, but is no measure against the harsh polar conditions. The mother, therefore, must keep them in her brood pouch for about 45 days.  

At this stage, Emperor penguin chicks leave their mother to join a chick crèche. They are constantly famished because of the down they are rapidly growing, so both parents have to go out to fish. Real feathers and black patches start appearing from December.  

9. The Guinness Book of Penguin Records

Emperor penguins hit a fair few ‘world’s bests’. For a start, they are the world’s largest and tallest penguins, standing 100-122cm tall.

They can also dive to greater depths and for longer periods than any of their avian friends. The deepest documented dive is an incredible 564m, and the longest dive on record is 28 minutes! 

Not only are they skilled at freediving, they can also swim at speeds of up to 6-9km per hour. 


10. Emperor Penguin Threats & Conservation

Aside from perils presented by the weather, there are other threats to Emperor penguins. Adult Emperor penguins are at risk of being an orca or leopard seal’s lunch, while the chicks call fall prey to southern giant petrels and south polar skuas.  

Because Emperor penguins rely on sea ice to nest, the longer-term danger is the impact of global warming. Sadly, in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, sea ice cover has decreased by more than 60% over the past few decades. Higher temperatures not only equates to less sea ice, but it may also lead to chicks hatching outside of the usual window when food is more scarce, thereby reducing their chances of survival.

Emperor penguin numbers have been dwindling, with one colony has disappearing completely. Protecting Emperor penguins is imperative. The krill, silverfish, and squid that Emperor penguins make a meal of – and the predators that, in turn, make a meal of them – are vital in the Antarctic food chain. 

While they aren’t officially endangered, the change in their behaviour is cause for concern. Learn more about how you can help endangered penguins in Antarctica here.

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