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Penguin awareness day

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

There are 18 recognised species of penguins and they all live in the southern hemisphere, occupying a host of habitats from forests in New Zealand, volcanic islands of the Galapagos, beaches of southern Africa to far-flung Sub-Antarctic Islands. 

From an evolutionary perspective, penguins have evolved to survive in some of the toughest weather conditions on earth, with thick insulating layers of blubber to keep them warm. They are flightless birds that spend much of their life in the water, and have become expert swimmers, using their sleek waterproof feathers to glide through the water as if they are in flight, with some species reaching speeds of up to 22 miles per hour

The penguin’s distinctive colouring, black body with white belly, helps camouflage them both on land and in the water as it searches for meals of small shrimp, fish, crabs and squid. Their feathers also trap air which helps to propel them out of the water when they are ready to return to land.

As well as being perfectly adapted to life in their natural habitats, penguins are socially, emotionally and cognitively complex animals.

Penguins display unique characteristics and their survival depends on their intelligent social behaviour, evolving social skills to come up with group solutions to complex problems. 

Many species stay together for life, raising chicks together each year. To help individuals recognise and find each other, often within crowded colonies, individual penguins have a unique call which varies from others in both frequency and structure. When they vocalise, their partners analyse specific parts of their partners’ call  helping them to locate each other amongst large and often very noisy flocks where thousands of penguins are also searching for their own mates. 

In King Penguin colonies this is helped due to their advanced hearing. They live in colonies with many thousands of individuals. The parents leave their chicks in the colony whilst they go off to find food. When they return the chicks and the adults call to each other, and they have an incredible ability to be able to both hear and recognise the voice of their own chick over the calls of many thousands of others all calling at the same time. 

When an adult approaches and searches for their chick, they call out using their unique call that only their chick will respond to. When they hear this, the chick will lift their head up, look around, call in reply, and move towards their parent, often running to them. The rest of the chicks remain calm and quiet, resting and preening themselves.

The same happens when an adult returns for their mate who is incubating the egg or young chick. However, the mate stays in one place and continuously calls to the searching penguin until they are reunited, and with this meeting so penguin partners often become excited, showing their affection for each other by cackling and swinging their heads from side to side.

The vocal recognition abilities in King penguins are so advanced, they can recognise their partners or their own chicks after hearing their calls for just 0.23 seconds, helping to locate each other very quickly amongst huge colonies. 

African penguins are also known to adapt their voices to sound like their companions, a concept known as social accommodation, and widely recognised in humans, with individuals that are close partners developing similar “voices” to each other.

African penguins can also match vocal sounds to specific individuals even when they can not see the particular individual, a concept known as cross-modal individual recognition.  Being able to visualise familiar individuals by simply hearing their voice, a process that requires the brain to simultaneously integrate information from different sensory modalities and to identify an individual based on their unique set of multimodal characteristics.

African penguins are also known to use the unique assortment of black dots that decorate their mostly all-white fronts as a means of individual recognition, allowing the penguins to tell one another apart. 

Due to their highly social nature, some penguin species also cooperate with each other. Emperor penguins live in large social groups in some of the harshest winter conditions where temperatures can drop to as low as -60°C. To survive in such harsh conditions, they huddle close together in large groups to keep themselves, and each other, warm, taking it in turns to be on the outside of the huddle which is the coldest place in the group.

Gentoo penguins hunt cooperatively, forming rafts made up of hundreds of individuals, swimming over the top of a shoal of fish and then diving quickly and cornering and catching their fish. African penguins are also cooperative hunters, herding fish towards the surface to cut off their escape route. This method of co-operative hunting is known to be three times more efficient than an individual hunting a single fish. 

Such coordinated hunting requires excellent communication between individuals, it requires rapid information processing, integrating quickly changing movements and signals from flock mates, and making a prediction where the fish are going to go and how to then get them. 

Penguins are also amazing parents. In many species, the male penguins play a crucial role in the rearing of their chicks and in some species, the males have developed extraordinary behaviours to both ‘woo’ their partner prior to mating, and to show her that they can provide for her nest building needs.

Male Gentoo Penguins woo females by gifting them with pebbles, searching through piles of stones to find the smoothest, most perfect ones and presenting it to his intended companion for her to add to the nest.

Male Adelie penguins are nest builders, with their aim to attract a female by building the biggest and best nest made up of small pebbles. As competition for pebbles, and pressure to please their mates is high, males will frequently raid the nests of neighbouring pairs to steal the best pebbles and present these to their own partners. 

Emperor penguins do not build nests but the dads are certainly present in the process of raising their chicks.  After the female lays the egg, her nutritional reserves become depleted and she must return to feed in the ocean for two months. This leaves the responsibility of keeping the egg warm through the freezing Antarctic winter to the dad. He does this by holding it between the top of his feet and his brooding pouch, enduring months of achingly cold temperatures without eating, whilst the females return to sea to find food. 


If he moves too suddenly or the egg becomes exposed to the freezing temperatures, the chick will perish. But his dedication, and his balance, ensures the survival of a new generation, and if the chick hatches before its mother returns, he produces a curd-like substance, which he regurgitates to keep the baby fed until mum returns with a belly full of fish. 

By the time mum does return, sleek and full of food, he may have lost 45% of his body weight. Ravenously hungry, he leaves to feed at sea.  The males are so important to the brooding process that females seek out well developed partners who can sit on eggs longer without food, making emperor penguin dads one of the most dedicated dads in the world and demonstrating the extraordinary commitment the parents will go to to ensure the survival of their youngsters.

Penguins are also cognitively complex, with recent research suggesting that wild adélie penguins respond to their own reflection, suggesting the capacity for self-awareness that has so far only been demonstrated in three other bird species, Eurasian magpies, Indian house crows, and pigeons.

Unfortunately despite their rich social, cognitive and emotional lives, many species are under threat. Niine species are listed as either Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List, giving them the dubious honour of being the second most threatened group of seabirds, behind only the albatrosses. Like albatrosses, penguins have been experiencing the worst of both worlds. At their land-based breeding sites, predation by introduced species, habitat degradation and disease are driving down numbers.

At sea, oil pollution and the impacts of fisheries – both by depleting prey stocks and through accidental capture in fishing gear – are taking their toll. The spectre of climate change looms over both the terrestrial and marine environments: habitat loss, more frequent intense storms, and disruption to the marine food web are all issues causing further problems for penguin populations.

Antarctica species —the emperor penguin and the Adelie penguin - depend on sea ice for access to food and for places to breed. But the sea ice has been disappearing, and penguin populations along with it. A 2008 WWF study estimated that 50% of the emperor penguins and 75% of the Adelie penguins will likely decline or disappear if global average temperatures rise above pre-industrial levels by just 2 degrees C—a scenario that could be reached in less than 40 years.

Many individuals are also dying due to either eating or becoming entangled in plastic pollution within the oceans. On a global scale, the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (1.5 million square kilometres) has been established in the Ross Sea, providing some protection to both Emperor and Adélie Penguin. 

Improved marine protections across Antarctica – and of course in important penguin feeding areas and migratory routes the world over – are a critical piece of the conservation puzzle. Penguins are living indicators of our stewardship of the marine environment, and as such, are telling us that we have much more to do to save them and their habitats from extinction.

On Penguin Awareness Day, we must do all we can to ensure penguins and the habitats they rely upon are conserved and all species can thrive once again.

Photo @shutterstock 107424374

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